Late last year I wrote a post about the conventions and use of quotation marks when writing dialogue. And not that I want to reopen the debate about writers who choose to forgo using quotation marks, it’s difficult to discuss dialogue without also acknowledge the other part of writing dialogue: attribution.

Dialogue attribution signals to the reader who owns the words that have been spoken. Just as quotation marks are little hanging signs instructing the reader how to read that series of words, dialogue attribution lets them know where it’s come from, who it’s come from.

In scenes of only two characters, it will often disappear. After the initial set-up of the conversation, it becomes superfluous. But add one more character into the scene, suddenly it becomes crucial for the writing to still have clarity.

But really, it’s not rocket science. There’s nothing new here.

Where dialogue attribution gets into trouble is when it starts trying to become part of the story. Where it works too hard. Showboats. (Okay look the words aren’t showboating, the writer is, but I’m trying to be nice here.) Stephen King writes about this at length in On Writing, declaring that the overwriting of dialogue attribution was something to avoid at all costs, particularly Swifties.

Swifties, after the style of dialogue attribution used and abused in the Tom Swift series of books from the early 20th century, essentially use adverbs in dialogue attribution to enhance the dialogue, often with ridiculous puns. (‘I’ll have a martini,’ Tom said dryly.) While classic Swifties use puns a lot, they don’t necessarily have to. But the use of adverbs in dialogue attribution might as well, as what it does is over-instruct the reader how to read the dialogue.

Take the following:

‘Do your worst!’ Tom cried bravely.

The reader ends up with this ridiculous formula:

‘This is what is said’ + This is who said it + this is how it is said.

King’s point is salient. The adverb is unnecessary, as both the context of the line of dialogue, and the words spoken, already tell us how a line might be said. So we cut it.

‘Do your worst!’ Tom cried.

Furthermore, if again contextually in the narrative it was already clear that Tom would be making this cry, the attribution to him also becomes unnecessary. Stating as well that it is ‘cried’, rather than ‘said’, ‘muttered’, ‘stammered’, ‘ejaculated’ or whathaveyou, does give the reader a clear idea, but in this case the exclamation mark already makes that clear. So one might end up with the following:

‘Do you worst!’

Of course, that also comes down to how preferential one is to exclamation marks.

King continues to describe how writers try to avoid Swifties by enveloping them into the attribution. The spoken verb suddenly becomes constantly active and descriptive, and a reader can have the experience of making their way through a narrative thinking that every character talks like a supporting character in an amateur Shakespearean production by way of daytime soap operas and William Shatner. King’s examples:

‘Put the gun down, Utterson!’ Jekyll grated.

‘Never stop kissing me!’ Shayna gasped.

‘You damned tease!’ Bill jerked out.

Basically, this style of attribution doesn’t give the reader the chance to utilise any imagination as they read the story, as the writer is too busy telling them how to read it. So what are we left with?

He said. She said.

Which is not to say these are the only ways of attributing dialogue. Not at all. But they’re the most common, and for a good reason. King himself admits it’s all well and good to preach avoiding Swifties and the like, when he’s just as likely to do it as the next person. And he admits the reason for it: ‘I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.’ If you writing is good enough, and strong enough, the reader will know how the dialogue has been said, all you need to do is let them know who said it, they will work out the rest.

What he doesn’t mention, and what I suspect, is that something else occurs for a reader when he said or she said is used. In a story with a lot of dialogue, there will be a lot of dialogue attribution. And for readers who read a lot, we are so accustomed to seeing that little couplet littered about the pages that we don’t really notice it anymore. We might pay attention to the who, just so that part of the scene is clear. But the word said is like some magic grease in the wheels of the story – it helps it move along, it helps the reader move along, but we don’t necessarily notice it happening. It becomes one of those words we use in stories so often it might as well just be punctuation. It might as well be invisible, given how it interacts with our subconscious when we read.

Finally, King’s last words on the matter, just to prove I’m a slavish disciple:

‘All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.’

He said.

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