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Reexamining Dialogue Attribution

Posted by CreateSpaceBlogger on Apr 6, 2011 11:05:53 AM

This is a follow-up to my post titled He said I used the word "said" too much. Attribution in writing is an obsession of mine. To me, the word an author chooses to use to attribute dialogue to a character is a huge indicator of style. There is a temptation for some writers to want to mix things up. They come to the point in the writing day where they just can't stand to use the word "said" anymore. It's monotonous. It feels lazy. It even seems to lack any kind of creative challenge. But after grappling with this issue for years, I've come to the conclusion that using a substitution for the word "said" may not be the right thing to do. I say this as someone who's been guilty in the past of throwing in a number of alternatives.


It's common in industry editorial circles to rein in writers and nix all the surrogate words, inserting the old tried-and-true "said" in their place. Why? Here's Elmore Leonard's reasoning from The New York Times:



The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.



In other words, it takes the reader out of the story. It took me a while to see it Leonard's way, but he's right. I just finished a new book, and I only used the word "said" to attribute the dialogue to a character. I did it consciously, and what I discovered was that it was far more creatively challenging for me to stick to this rule than to substitute at will. I discovered creative ways to structure the story that didn't require the dialogue to be attributed to a character; the speaker would be obvious to the reader from the flow of the story.



I'm not one to say outright that it is the mark of a novice writer to use alternatives for "said." I see it more as a matter of style; however, I'm now firmly ensconced in the "said" camp. If you haven't explored the issue, I encourage you to give it some thought. What is your preferred method of dialogue attribution?




Richard Ridley is an award-winning author and paid CreateSpace contributor.



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