Dialogue Attribution: Small Thing, Big Effect

Dialogue Attribution

Small thing, big effect

March 14, 2019


Dialogue is the favorite part of story writing for many authors. In dialogue writing, the author is able to give voice to the people the author created. Also dialogue is a favorite for many readers as well since it moves quickly, is a frequent source for humor, and generally adds white space to a book page making the reading look less intimidating. So dialogue is important but how about the bits that tag along with the dialogue: speech tags and narrative action. How important is that? And how varied?

Let's Talk Attribution

The basic speech tag serves one purpose: it keeps the reader from becoming confused about who is speaking. If you've ever read a lengthy bit of dialogue without speech tags, you can see how easy it is to lose track of who is speaking. Many times when reading, I've had to stop and go back to the last speech tag and basically reread to sort out who is saying what. If you do that to a young reader, they'll often abandon you. They have other things to do and will rarely spend time sorting out confusing dialogue.

That doesn't mean you must attribute every bit of speech. Nor does it mean that the only thing you have available for attribution is "he said" or "she said." In fact a long string of speech which is strictly tagged with "he said/she said" is likely to keep the reader oriented as to who is speaking, but it offers nothing else. And it can get boring quickly if used in exactly the same way every time.

Combating the "Boring" Speech Tag

Many newer writers who are trying to avoid speech tags becoming boring will turn to their thesaurus for alternate speech tag verbs. Thus, you'll get characters who "exclaim" and "declare" and "query." The problem with that is voice. Dialogue reflects the voice of your characters, but all narration (including speech tags) has voice as well. And the voice needs to feel authentic and consistent. So if you're using a bright, youthful, lively voice in most of your narration but relying on stilted verbs like "declared" and "queried" in your speech tags, you are creating an uneven narrative voice. And the spots where you do that will stand out. And then the way you are writing will (at least for that moment) become more important than what you are writing. And that's something that never works.

In fact, the "boring" speech tag is actually often caused by a combination of elements that come together to feel too repetitive for the reader. Sure, one element might be having every bit of speech tagged with "said," but the repetitiveness can also come from using the exact same sentence form in your speech. Form will include word choice, but also how you break the dialogue for the tag, and whether you ever vary with other kinds of identifiers.

First variant: Moving Things Around
Look at this example of quick dialogue:

"I know," Jane said.

"I thought you did," Bob said.

"You knew it all along," Jane said.

"I did," Bob said.

Now, we could use lots of ways to vary that. But let's try one that uses "said" but is less rigid in structure:

"I know," Jane said.

Bob said, "I thought you did."

"You knew it all along," Jane said.

"I did," said Bob.

This tiny variant doesn't exactly make the dialogue suddenly fascinating, but it does keep it from being quite so repetitive, and therefore dull. It helps. But we can do even more.

Second Variant: Moving Out of Limbo
One of the problems with using only speech tags (no matter what the verb) is that it results in the setting and action falling away from the story and leaving nothing behind but talking heads. In fact, stories happen in places. And people often do stuff when they talk. So this opens the door for adding interest by expanding the world the characters are speaking in. Consider this:

Jane closed her locker door and leaned her forehead against the smooth metal. "I know."

"I thought you did," Bob whispered.

Jane turned her head to look into his sad brown eyes. "You knew it all along."

"I did." He smiled sadly. "I did."

How much better do we know the characters when we expand beyond voices and let the physicality of the setting and the characters creep in to make the moment deeper? Now this doesn't always work. Sometimes we might begin a bit of dialogue this way, but then segue into an argument where we want to convey speed and force. In a situation like that, you might choose to leave some dialogue untagged (when the speaker is very clear) and use narrative action to add emotion or to change the pacing.

She slammed the locker. "You could have told me."

"You wouldn't listen."

She poked him in the chest. "You don't know that."

"I do."

"You don't."

He caught her finger before it could strike his chest again. "I do. I always do."

See how the lack of dialogue tags is kept limited so that I gain energy and speed but don't pay for it in confusion? Look at the dialogue you've written lately. Do you use all the tools available to you to create dialogue that feels part of a real moment? Do you use variety effectively? Dialogue is one of the most powerful things you'll write in a story, so consider it carefully, because sometimes even the little things can have a big impact when used well. So let's use them well.

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.


Tina Marie Jude
March 26, 2019

Thank you as always!

Janis Fields
March 18, 2019

Thanks so much everyone. I'm so glad you're finding these posts helpful.

lorraine jericevic
March 18, 2019

Brilliant as always. Just going back for a quick dialogue check. Thanks for the reminder.

Ricki Ristuccia
March 17, 2019

Thank you, Jan. Working on my latest revisions of my manuscripts, I have changed a lot of dialogue to using the physicality of the setting and the characters, with fewer 'he said' and 'she said' tags. This has really helped my stories come alive. I have learned a lot from your helpful comments.

Tiffany Dickinson
March 16, 2019

These are great examples. Thank you!

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