Problems With Attributions
For nearly a decade I served as an instructor for an international writing correspondence school. This course was designed for those who wanted to write for children and teens – which of course was my niche.
The student load that I carried was big, which meant I was reading multiple manuscripts every day. What an awesome learning experience for me. Like on-the-job-training.
When it came to writing dialogue, one problematic area that plagued nearly every beginning author was the attributions. The “he saids” and “she saids” that show who is saying what. Otherwise known as “taglines.” Heavy-handed attributions – what I call clunky taglines– are one of the surest hallmarks of a beginning writer.
What do I mean by clunky? Check out these few examples:
- “Is she going to be all right?” I slowly asked.
- “One to two years of hard work and for what?” I surprisingly said to him.
- “I only meant it as a joke,” Mr. Jordan laughingly said.
- “I’ll give you all the money you paid me this year and I’ll keep working for you,” I questioningly said.
- “I hope she doesn’t bring her dog along,” Moped Jeff from the doorway.
An Easy Trap
Whoa! I’ll stop there. I could add several more but I trust you’re getting the point. I used to collect these – not because I wanted to poke fun at anyone, but to clearly demonstrate what a sticky wicket this area of fiction writing can be. (Keep in mind, no one can make these kinds of errors in writing unless they are trying. The one who never makes errors is the one who never tries!)
Creating clunky taglines is an easy trap to slip into. It boils down to trying too hard. The author wants so much to convince the reader as to how the character is speaking, so the fall-back remedy is to pad the tagline.
A good editing test is to go through your entire manuscript searching out taglines and note how they are written. Now you know whether or not this is a problem area in your writing.
For the most part simply using said works because it becomes almost invisible to the reader. But even said can be overdone.
The best technique – which takes time to learn – is to weave in bits of business. Let the character’s actions work to pump drama into dialogue.
- Craig yanked out a chair and sat down bumping the table, making the water glasses quiver. His folder slid across the table. He grabbed for it and bumped the table again. “Let this dad-blamed meeting begin!”
- Her hands quivered as she shredded a tissue. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
- His ham-sized fist hit the wall. Their framed wedding picture slammed to the floor. “Get out of here now.”
As you can see, no need for attributions here; the action lets you know the tone and inflection. Once you move into this pattern of writing dialogue, the importance of attributions just seems to fade away. The entire focus changes.
Study Your Favorite Author
Now read one of your favorite novels and study passages of dialogue and see how the author handled the dialogue exchanges.
- How many taglines?
- How many saids?
- How many bits of business?
The main job of the author is to become invisible. Heavy attributions (clunky taglines) cry out that someone behind the scenes is writing this stuff.
The more skilled you become at writing dialogue, the more invisible you become. The attention of your readers will seldom, if ever, be drawn to your taglines!Photo Credit: © Andres Rodriguez