Using Dialogue Attributions

You want us to know she said it thoughtfully or hesitantly, or that he replied brusquely or rudely. But really, you need to trust: Trust your reader to have read carefully and engaged with your work emotionally so that describing a character’s speech is unnecessary. Trust your writing to have clearly led up to that moment and successfully set the scene to make those descriptions redundant.

Uncertain writers rely on aggressive dialogue attributes and tonal tags. (Dialogue attributes are those words that indicate who is speaking: said, replied, answered, etc. Tonal tags are adverbs that describe how something was said: Lucy said angrily, Jill gasped fearfully.) Don’t be a fearful writer. If you’ve done your job, set your scene, laid the context, and clarified your characters, tonal tags are redundant and obtrusive. Dialogue should convey how words are spoken, not the author describing it afterwards. “Get off my bed!” brother said angrily. We don’t need the tonal tag angrily. The speech itself tells us.

If the dialogue cannot clue us into the way a sentence is uttered (or you still don’t trust your writing or the reader to work it out) then an action will do a better job. “Tell me all about it,” Mother said sympathetically, is not nearly as strong as, “Tell me all about it,” Mother said, and wrapped her arm about Tim’s shoulder.

Some writers avoid tonal tag adverbs by using more colorful dialogue attributions: she snapped, he spat, John whines, Cora giggles. These aren’t much better. They force a reader’s attention to how something was said rather than what was said.

If you can get by without any dialogue tags, so much the better. Often a writer can, particularly if you abide the grammar conventions of speech. Otherwise, said is as invisible as a comma and almost always the best form of dialogue attribution. If you’re tempted to use anything else, reconsider your writing–the speech itself and the surrounding context should show enough. Anything else is just telling.


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