Author Topic: What is dialogue attribution and general dialogue structuring?  (Read 73 times)

Offline JanTetstone

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What is dialogue attribution and general dialogue structuring?
« on: November 04, 2018, 09:50:18 AM »

Dialogue is one of the most important elements of any short story you write. When you implement it into your story, you can avoid using long narratives that only serve to tell the reader what is going on rather than showing them. It also brings the story to life for your readers. When dialogue is written correctly and well, your characters seem even more real and three-dimensional. Readers can hear them talking almost as clearly as if they were standing right in front of them.

With that said, just as well written dialogue will advance your story and make it more enjoyable, poorly written dialogue will ruin an otherwise good story. Learning to write exceptional dialogue is paramount to writing good short stories.

Formatting Dialogue


Whenever you write dialogue, you must remember that each speaker/character gets his/her own paragraph.


Take a look at the examples below.

"Give me that," Jane said, reaching for the hammer. "What do I get if I do?" he asked.

This first example is confusing to read because it is difficult to figure out when one character's speech stops and another's starts.

"Give me that," Jane said, reaching for the hammer.

"What do I get if I do?" he asked.

This is much clearer because it uses separate paragraphs to mark each speaker's words.

Whenever a different character speaks, you start a new paragraph. Also, whenever you start to write about a different character than the one who just spoke, you also start a new paragraph.

Read the next two examples. Examine the correct way to format the dialogue in the second.

Incorrect:  "Give me that," Jane said, reaching for the hammer. John jerked it out of her reach and grinned.

"Geez, would you just give it to her?" Allison asked as she rolled her eyes.

Correct:  "Give me that," Jane said, reaching for the hammer.


 John jerked it out of her reach and grinned.

"Geez, would you just give it to her?" Allison asked as she rolled her eyes.

Notice that in the first sentence, Jane was speaking. The second sentence switched to John and told that John was taking action by jerking it out of her reach. Since the second sentence only refers to John's action and is not part of Jane's speech or thoughts, we start a new paragraph.

"Give me that," Jane said, reaching for the hammer. (Note: Jane is speaking and reaching for the hammer.)

 John jerked it out of her reach and grinned. (Note: John jerks the hammer out of her reach and grins. Jane has nothing to do with his action: she does not reach or grin for him, she does not think he will reach or grin, and she does not say he will reach or grin. Therefore, this sentence is in a paragraph all of its own.)

"Geez, would you just give it to her?" Allison asked as she rolled her eyes. (Note: Allison speaks, so it starts a new paragraph.)

Rule

When writing dialogue, only use one speaker's words or thoughts per paragraph. Any narration in that paragraph must directly correlate to the speaker's words, thoughts, or actions.

Speaker Attributions


Speaker attributions can be defined as the act of establishing which character or speaker said what in a story. You use speaker attributions simply to tell the reader who said what and, sometimes, what they were doing when they said it. Speaker attributions are also called dialogue tags.

"Give me that hammer," Jane said.

Or

"Give me that hammer," Jane said, reaching across the table for it.

In the sentence above, "Give me that hammer" was attributed to Jane because she is the one that said it. By adding 'Jane said' after the closing quotation mark, we let the reader know that Jane is the one who is doing the talking. Since we also want to show the action she is taking as she speaks, we add that also.

Speaker attributions give credit to whoever is speaking. They are not supposed to be used to do much more than that. However, new writers are prone to using speaker attributions to not only establish which character is speaking, but to also tell how they are saying it.

Remember: In fiction, you are always supposed to show the action, not tell about it.

The example below illustrates this common mistake:


"Give me that hammer," Jane said angrily.

John grinned.

When we use the word angrily with the speaker attribute, we are telling the reader how she said it. That is not only considered poor dialogue, it is also a lazy shortcut that is instantly picked out by publishers and editors. Instead, we should always show the character's emotions and illustrate them using action, as in the next example.

Jane slammed the book on the table and glared at John. "Give me the hammer."

John grinned.

Notice in this example, the attribute 'Jane said' is not present. However, the first sentence of this paragraph made it clear that Jane was the one who was talking. The speaker attribution is not needed. Since it is not necessary to put it in, we don't because we don't want to risk breaking the flow of the dialogue. We have also gotten rid of the adjective angrily which told she was angry and, instead, showed the reader that Jane was angry through her actions.

Always avoid using adverbs in your speaker attributions. If you are using them, you are telling and not showing. The things that make dialogue interesting and real to your readers are all of the components that you use to show, and not tell, what each character says, what they are doing when they say it, and how they say it. To show, you have to use action. Action requires verbs. Use the simple tenses and never rely on adverbs in any of your speaker attributions.

Just to hammer this point home, look at the following example.

Incorrect:  "I'm going to the store," Sam announced happily. "Want to go with me?"

Sam's emotion is told. It's dry and uninteresting.

Correct:  Sam pulled his shiny, new driver's license out of his pocket. The car keys were already in his hand as he flashed them at his little sister and grinned. "I'm going to the store," he announced. "Want to go with me?"

In the last example, Sam's happiness is shown through his actions. The reader can see Sam and feel how happy he is. The dialogue is fresh and interesting.

Common Mistakes with Speaker Attributions 

In the last section of this article, we said that you could also show the action a speaker is taking in the speaker attribute. While it is true that you can do this, you must also be careful not to create an impossible situation. You want your story and your characters to be believable. To do this, you must make sure that you do not end up creating dialogue that is unbelievable.


A lot of new writers make a mistake similar to the one below.


"Are you sure your mom said it was okay?" Carly asked, chewing her nails.

What is wrong with this speaker attribute? It's written correctly. The question was attributed to the speaker Carly, and it showed her action (and her nervousness) in the speaker attribute. It looks as if the writer did their job by showing and not telling. However, when is the last time you saw someone talk while they were chewing their nails?

Listen, every writer makes mistakes like this as they write. You are so careful to show what is happening, and you see the scene in your head so clearly, that you easily make mistakes such as this.

Using the above example again, it's easy to imagine Carly chewing on her nails, stopping to ask the question, then to resume chewing on her nails. However, to the reader, this action is impossible because what is written implies that she speaks WHILE she chews on her nails. It's not believable.

Here is another common mistake that is made with speaker attributions:

"I know you're right," Amy sighed.

When is the last time you heard anyone sigh words or sentences? You can sigh before or after you say something, but never during. Although this is a mistake you can catch even in some novels today, it's not one you should make, not if you want to be known for writing excellent dialogue.

Correct:  Amy sighed. "I know you're right."

Or

Amy tossed the magazine down on the coffee table. "I know you're right." She plopped down into a chair and sighed.

The example above shows her resignation to whatever the situation may be. It also makes her sigh possible because it clearly is shown to happen after she speaks.

Make sure all your speaker attributions are believable. It's always best to stick with attributes such as he said, exclaimed, replied, questioned, etc. If you try to get fancy and use different ones because they sound prettier or different, you may be attributing something to your speaker that realistically can't be done. Besides, it's a proven fact that most readers don't even notice normal speaker attributes such as 'said,' and they just read the dialogue instead. That means less interruption and distraction to the reader, which is a good thing. So, stick with the regular, more common attributes and leave the sighing of words and sentences to amateur writers who don't yet know how to write amazing dialogue.

When to Use Quotation Marks

As you should already know, quotation marks are used to separate a speaker or character's spoken words from the narration. The quotation marks are a sign to your reader that someone is speaking. The attributes following the closing quotation mark lets the reader know who was doing the talking.

That said, in a story, you might want to include your characters' thoughts into the story, as well as their spoken words. Including a character's thoughts gives the reader insight into the character and, sometimes, into the story itself.

While it's certainly not against the rules to use quotation marks to set off your character's thoughts from narration, it's not always necessary either. You can also use italics. Using italics instead of quotation marks allows you to insert the thoughts and present them to your reader without calling their attention to them. It's as if the thought popped into your reader's head as well. While quotation marks normally make a reader sit up and take notice that someone is thinking or speaking, italics are more sneaky and less distracting.

Look at the example below using quotation marks for the character's thoughts.

Jamie walked around his car and surveyed the damage. "My mother's going to kill me for this," he thought to himself as he ran his hand through his hair. He looked at the front bumper lying on the asphalt in front of the car. "Gawd, I am so dead."  The car was brand freaking new before he got his hands on it.

A cop car pulled up behind him. Jamie grimaced. He was going to get a ticket. He just knew it, but that would be nothing compared to his mother's wrath.

"I should've known not to take that curve so fast, but damn, I thought I could make it. Stupid, stupid, stupid!" he chided himself as he walked back toward the cop. He stopped to pick up the tiny red shards of broken tail light off the ground and slid them into his jacket pocket. They would make a good souvenir. Once his mother found out about this, he wouldn't get anywhere near another car for a very long time.

Notice how his thoughts call the reader out of the story. The speaker attributes only make that even more true. Read the new version below and notice how much smoother it reads and how his thoughts sneak their way into the story, adding depth and life to the narration.

Jamie walked around his car and surveyed the damage. My mother's going to kill me for this. He looked at the front bumper lying on the asphalt in front of the car. Gawd, I am so dead.  The car was brand freaking new before he got his hands on it.

A cop car pulled up behind him. Jamie grimaced. He was going to get a ticket. He just knew it, but that would be nothing compared to his mother's wrath.

Should've known not to take that curve so fast, but damn! I thought I could make it. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He stopped to pick up the tiny red shards of broken tail light off the ground as he approached the cop and slid them into his jacket pocket. They would make a good souvenir. Once his mother found out about this, he wouldn't get anywhere near another car for a very long time.

Putting Jamie's thoughts in italics makes the text flow a lot smoother. Since he's the only one in the scene and speaker attributions really aren't needed, the italics are a better choice.

Use quotation marks when there is dialogue occurring between characters and one character thinks, instead of speaking.

"Pass the gravy," Charlotte said.

 "There isn't any more," Amy replied.

"Darn it, I wanted more potatoes."

"What you need is some salad and to lose some weight," Matt thought to himself.

Exception:  There are times when you don't need italics or quotation marks when writing speaker or character thoughts.

"Pass the gravy," Charlotte said.

 "There isn't anymore," Amy replied.

Matt chuckled. Like Charlotte needed anymore anyway. Try losing weight instead and laying off the mashed potatoes for a while.

However, in the above example, the writer is writing the story from the third person omniscient. The narrator knows, hears, and observes everything that is going on, including all characters' thoughts. In this example, the thoughts are clearly attributed to Matt. That is why quotation marks or italics are not needed.

Conclusion on Dialogue 

Dialogue does not have to be difficult to write. Just remember to make it life-like and realistic at all times. You can do that by using the proper formatting and make sure that everything you write shows, and doesn't tell, the reader what is going on or being said in that scene. Leave out adverbs in speaker attributions, and make sure that everything you write is believable. These are really simple rules, and they'll help you to create exceptional dialogue.


Again, another great site for writers seeking information on a subject connected to their writing (jt):

https://www.universalclass.com/articles/writing/writing-dialogue-for-short-stories.htm