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The Attribution Game: Writing Better Dialogue
"Musings" Archive for February 2004
by Margot Finke
What you are about to read may shock or even disturb you. . . . Dialogue offers a one-on-one sense of intimacy. When done right, dialogue makes your readers feel they are eavesdropping on the characters -- naughty but nice! Most of the time, attribution is a must but not always the ubiquitous "he said /she said." Shocking? Don't be shocked, read on.
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Don't Always Play The Game:
There is often an excellent reason for using plain, straightforward attribution. Hey, I use it myself! However, there are times when the "he said, she said" thing becomes monotonous: an irritating echo. Think about those areas where your critique group said you needed something richer, more evocative. Maybe you want to plant a clue or two? This is where an alternative to your usual attribution can provide that extra richness, that evocative feeling, that hint of things to come. So, when dialogue seems to come from a machine gun, and you'd like your characters to show more emotion or grit, go for actions and reactions.
Sneaky Is Good!
But how to seamlessly weave in these extras without making it obvious? No good writer wants a series of information dumps clogging their plot and slowing the pace. This is where sneaky comes in, allowing you to add perfectly natural character enrichment, with a whiff of portent.
Examples - Using "He said -- She said," Attribution:
"I hate wrinkles and looking old," said Alex. "Would you think I was vain and silly if I had a face lift?"
"A face lift. . .! Are you sure?" John asked. "Will you sulk for a week if I disagree?"
"Yes, I'm sure. And I never sulk! You just don't want to give me an answer, do you?" said Alex.
"Please don't kick me again," said Tom.
"Why not, fart-face? You going to stop me?" said Butch.
Examples - Using "Sneaky" Actions & Reactions:
"I hate wrinkles and looking old." Alex stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, a frown on her face. "Would you think I was vain and silly if I wanted a face lift?"
"A face lift. . .! Are you sure?" John stepped away, his face lathered, razor in hand. "Will you sulk for a week if I disagree?"
"Yes, I'm sure. And I never sulk! You just don't want to give me an answer, do you?" She glared at him in the mirror, but he avoided eye contact.
"Please don't kick me again." Tom huddled in the corner, his face a mess of dirt and despair.
Hands on hips, Butch grinned, slow and awful. "Why not, fart-face? You going to stop me?"
With the attribution game, the choice is always with the writer. Sometimes plain attribution works beautifully. Then again, sometimes you need sneaky.
Happy sneaky writing, mates!
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