She Said, She Said, She Said…

Writing Dialogues

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The joys of attributives in dialogues and three techniques to improve your writing. 

Practice makes perfect. Well, at the very least it makes you better at something. As a writer, you must have heard the old advice, ‘the more you write, the better you get at it’. And I do think it’s good advice.

Writing is like a journey with perks. Every word you write gives you ‘word miles’ – when you have accumulated enough you are able to trade them for goodies. Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily mean heaps of publishing contracts, but certainly ‘power ups’ of sorts. Things like an eye for sentence structuring, the ability to spot repetitions, clunky dialogues, openings and closings that work, etc.

One of the writing obstacles I learned to tackle during my journey with Tijaran Tales, was the ‘he said/she said/they said’ issue. These are what we call attributives. They attribute a line of dialogue to a specific character.

Generally speaking, these simple attributives are established and accepted part of dialogues, and many writers enjoy their transparency and usefulness; the problem for most people is where to put them and how many time to use them.

WHERE TO PUT THEM

Don’t break the dialogue up.
‘We may be late,’ said Jed, ‘but at least we made it.’ This sounds correct, as opposed to: ‘We may be,’ said Jed, ‘late, but at least we made it.’
Your inner ear should tell you which of the two flows smoother.

At the end of a short line.
‘I wish you were taller,’ said Mary.

WHEN TO USE THEM

If you are writing a dialogue between two people, you can use them when the characters first speak. After that, the reader will be able to keep track using formatting and logic, like so:
‘I loved that ice cream parlour,’ said Tim.
‘I preferred the pizzeria,’ said John.
‘Surely not!’
‘Surely yes – I die if I eat dairies!’

USING VERBS OR ADVERBS INSTEAD

It is certainly common practice to use verbs or adverbs in dialogues. If you write dialogues for graphic novels, then you won’t have to worry about attributives of any kind – speech bubbles, images and facial expressions will tell you all you need to know.

A verb essentially tells the reader how to interpret a line (it/he/she/they grumbled, hissed, spat, shouted, cried, roared, etc.). Take the following example:
‘Go wash your toes, son. I’m not going to ask you again.’
‘Alright, Mum,’ groaned Attila.

Adverbs have the same function as verbs, in that they tell the reader how a line is meant to sound (it/he/she/they said thrillingly, sadly, fiercely, naturally, etc.). A drawback is that they can slow the flow down, and some, like thrillingly, are a bit of a mouthful even if you are not reading out loud.

HOW TO AVOID THEM (IF YOU WANT TO, THAT IS)

When you have two or more characters, you can avoid using an attributive by inserting the name of the object in the line.
‘Pass me the bread, Jack.’
‘Here you are, Sarah.’

If you feel the need to use too many verbs or adverbs to help the reader understand your mood, perhaps it’s time to look at your dialogue again and do some re-writing. Aside from the fact that a reader will naturally fill in the blanks, therefore owning a story, you shouldn’t forget that it’s your story, to begin with – say what you mean to say clearly.

TRY SOMETHING NEW

That said, there are some techniques you can practice to improve this aspect of your writing.

1. Using an existing page of dialogue, try to re-write it but removing some of the simple he said/she said and replaced them with some of the alternatives seen above.

2. Write a brand new dialogue trying not to use it/he/she/they said – not even once!

3. Reflect on your use of verbs as substitutes for attributives.
Precede or follow lines of dialogues with an action. They keep saying that writers are supposed to show, not tell, so try this out.
Mark shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. ‘Can you give me some space, please?’

AND FINALLY…

A blend of different attributives, as seen above, seems to work well for most writers. There are not hard and fast rules about the use of attributives. Wait a day and read your dialogues again, out loud if you can. If something is out of place or clunky or it springs out at you because it has been overused, then you’ll need to address it.