Chip MacGregor

December 6, 2016

Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 1


brick green no smile b:w“Stories are told in action and dialogue.”

I don’t remember a whole lot from my fiction writing classes in college– judging by the notes I scribbled in the margins of my carefully-preserved notebooks from that era, my attention during these classes was mainly focused on what items I needed from the grocery store and the correct ear-to-head ratio of a classic Mickey Mouse outline. That being the case, it stands to reason that my various professors must have all hit the “action and dialogue” rule pretty hard for it to have broken through the hungry-doodling haze and stuck with me all these years. While all the poets reading this are already clamoring that I’ve forgotten narrative/description, let’s run with this simplified definition of story for a few weeks while we talk about crafting effective dialogue. I’ll be talking about the role of dialogue in storytelling, achieving balance between action and dialogue, and common dialogue problems and how to avoid them, but today, I thought I’d tackle one specific element of dialogue which has the potential to derail even the most eloquent exchanges of dialogue: attribution.

Attribution is the means by which a writer informs the reader who said what and (sometimes) how they said it. What I’ve noticed after reading millions (more or less) of manuscripts is that someone can actually be pretty good at writing dialogue and still be lousy at attribution; the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. The good news for these writers is that bad attribution habits are pretty easy to recognize and to break, once you’re aware of them. Most attribution offenses I see fall into one of three camps:

1. The “said” synonyms. Answered, retorted, chortled, whispered, exclaimed, muttered, queried, replied, agreed, voiced, uttered, pronounced, laughed, joked, lamented, groaned, mourned, insisted, demanded, raged, fumed– there are literally dozens of synonyms for “said,” and yes, sometimes one of them is just the tool you need to establish the tone of a scene or the delivery of a line of dialogue perfectly. Characters are perfectly free to mutter, demand, and groan from time to time. The synonym syndrome becomes problematic, however, when you decide that every use of the word “said” is a missed opportunity for telling the reader exactly how a character delivered a line– why would I settle for telling someone that the witch “said” something when I could tell them that she “cackled” it? You can almost see the evil glint that comes into my eye as I imagine the possibilities for controlling my readers’ imaginations– after all, I’m supposed to be painting a picture, right? Why wouldn’t I tell a reader exactly which shade of blue I’m using and exactly how thick my brushstrokes are? The problem is that these evocative verbs can start to overwhelm the actual dialogue when used excessively. Consider the following exchange:

“Did you follow me here?” he demanded.

“Yes, but only because I love you!” she quavered.

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word,” he scoffed.

“I never thought you could be so cruel,” she whimpered.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” he groaned.

Now, ignoring the fact that this soap-opera dialogue is TERRIBLE and obviously created solely to serve as an illustration, what you notice as you read this exchange is that the longer it goes on, the louder the attribution verbs shout for attention. The kind of picture-painting done by these words is lazy and melodramatic– demand, scoff, quaver, groan! These poor characters sound like they belong on a music hall stage with a campy piano underscore and boo-hiss cue cards for the audience. Much better to put a little more effort into making the speaker’s tone clear via the actual words he’s speaking than to take the shortcut of trying to over-control the reader’s experience of the dialogue.

Now, if you’re like me, at some point in your English education a teacher gave you a writing exercise in which you were instructed to “add color” to your writing by replacing every instance of “said” with a more descriptive verb, and this was fine for 6th grade when we were all learning the power of words to paint a picture, but I think the lingering effect of that exercise has been to scare some writers away from using “he/she said” too frequently. While you certainly can overuse it, it’s also true that “he/she said” has become nearly invisible to readers because of how frequently it appears in writing, with the result that writers can use “he said” pretty freely to provide necessary attribution which won’t interrupt or distract the reader.

2. The adverb addiction. This one is similar to the “said” synonym problem in that it’s a habit authors fall into when they’re attempting to hyper-regulate the reader’s experience of the dialogue. I blame our “screenplay consciousness” for this one– people in this culture tend to watch a lot of TV and movies, and the trickle-down effect is that many writers tend toward describing exactly how a line is delivered rather than letting the content of a line connote the tone and delivery. This tendency is even more distracting than the evocative-verb habit, and can really interrupt the flow of a scene. Consider our star-crossed lovers:

“Did you follow me here?” he asked angrily.

“Yes, but only because I love you!” she said urgently.

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word,” he said derisively.

“I never thought you could be so cruel,” she said brokenly.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” he said impatiently.

Now, obviously, in this rapid-fire exchange, the repeated use of adverbs is pretty conspicuous and you might be rolling your eyes at the idea that anyone would seriously write like this, but that’s the thing with a habit: one becomes less and less aware of it as it becomes more and more ingrained. I read plenty of manuscripts in which the author’s otherwise solid dialogue is weighed down with all kinds of superfluous adverbs in the attribution, slightly less obvious than my example though they may be. Like the “said” synonyms, the adverbs in the attribution are often unnecessary if the content of the dialogue is well-written. I don’t have to tell my readers that, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” was said impatiently, or was “groaned;” even without knowing anything about this character apart from what is revealed in his earlier two lines of dialogue, we know that he’s not super happy with the person he’s talking to, he’s not feeling a whole lot of compassion for her (he laughs when she tells him she loves him), and that the “for heaven’s sake” idiom is generally used to communicate impatience or exasperation. The reader has already been given plenty of clues as to how to interpret his delivery, and is most likely going to interpret it as “impatient” without my having to label it as such. My general advice to adverb junkies is to go back through their manuscripts and ruthlessly slaughter nine out of every ten adverbs and take their chances with the reader interpreting the dialogue delivery for herself.

3. Accumulated attribution, or: the “said” better left unsaid. Authors who write long dialogue scenes or rapid-fire exchanges between two characters encounter this problem much more frequently than the author who uses dialogue sparingly. You don’t have to write too many page-long dialogue scenes before you get sick of attributing every line, and for good reason: it’s not necessary! If you begin a scene by clearly establishing the two speakers, there’s absolutely no reason to rudely interrupt your characters to throw in “he saids” and “she saids” when it’s perfectly obvious to your reader who said what. We’ll take my horrible example scene first: note how I can get rid of the majority of the attribution if I set up the scene properly.

Lucy drew back as Frederick spun to face her. His tone was sharp, hate etched in every line of his face. “Did you follow me here?” he asked.

“Yes, but only because I love you!”

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

“I never thought you could be so cruel.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!”

Because I establish clearly who’s present and who starts the exchange, there isn’t any confusion as to who’s speaking for the rest of the scene. As you can see, when the attribution disappears, the truly terrible nature of the dialogue stands out significantly more than it did when I was pulling the puppet strings of fancy verbs and bossy adverbs. Good dialogue, however, will function just as (or more) effectively without attribution, which brings us to your homework assignment for the week: if you were reading at the end of my last post, I encouraged you to read some P. G. Wodehouse in preparation for today’s dialogue discussion. The Girl in Blue was the first Wodehouse book I ever read, and I still remember marveling at the PAGES of unattributed, brilliant dialogue filling that novel. Wodehouse’s characters are far too quick-witted to wait for some lumbering author to attribute everything they say, and so they don’t, the result being lightning-quick exchanges of banter, fast-paced arguments, and the unmistakable Wodehouse voice jumping off every page unmuffled by boring “he saids” and “she muttereds.” So if you want to read an example of how to do unattributed dialogue really well (or just want some hilarious, fabulously clever summer reading) hunt up a Wodehouse novel. (I know that will make Chip happy, since he’s a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan.)

So a couple questions: Which of these attribution issues bothers you most? Which one do you struggle with the most in your own writing?


Erin Buterbaugh is a graduate of the writing program at Taylor University, worked as an agent with MacGregor Literary, continues to be a freelance editor and consultant with children’s authors, teaches at a university in Colorado, and is one of the most talented people I know. You can check her out on Facebook or on that Twitter account she rarely visits. And my thanks to Erin for letting me use her words! -Chip

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  • Erin Schellhase says:

    Good reminders! I find that I use “he said” and “she said” tags, interspersed narration about what the speakers are doing, etc., as much for rhythm and pacing as to tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes you want a rapid back-and-forth exchange; sometimes, the dialogue needs pauses. Reading a passage of dialogue aloud is a good way to identify awkward tags and poor pacing.

    In my own writing, the dialogue situations I find most difficult are conversations involving three or more characters. I like writing tête-à-tête scenes, but a multi-speaker conversation can quickly become cluttered with attribution.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    Excellent suggestions! My editor is old school and wants me to use “said” rather than omitting it or replacing it. My beta readers want me to replace “said” with more creative tags (replied, answered, etc) Both are voracious readers of many genres. It’s a fine line. We writers can become overwhelmed by trying to please editors, readers, and agents. You can see how easy it is for a writer to just throw in the towel and watch Netflix.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I, too, was taught in middle school to never use “said” and always find a more descriptive alternative. More recently, I’ve heard to always use “said,” even for questions. I like your common sense balance between those two extremes!

  • Laura Droege says:

    I know I commented earlier, but I wanted to tell you this. Right after reading this post, I found a P.G. Wodehouse book at a thrift store and bought it. I’ve read one other Wodehouse book (and found it enormously entertaining) and I’ll be reading this one with an eye on how he handles dialogue. Thanks for the recommendation, Erin.

  • Fantastic post! I guest-wrote something for the Writer’s Digest blog “There Are No Rules” on the same topic in the last couple of weeks. There’s always more to say about the importance of dialogue!

  • Laura Droege says:

    Hey, you’re finally writing as yourself and not Amanda!

    Good reminders about dialogue. I tend to trip up in dialogue with a different issue. I try to have the characters interacting with the real world, doing things that are meaningful for the scene, and sometimes I use a non-verbal response in place of spoken word in a passage of dialogue.

    But sometimes, particularly when I have two characters of the same gender, I confuse readers with pronouns in the action part of the dialogue. For example, some readers have asked, “So is it character #1 doing thus-and-such or is it character #2 doing that? It’s not clear who the ‘she’ is that you’re referring to.” (And don’t get me started about what a headache it is to have 3 females in conversation with one another.) I can’t always refer to the character by name, because that’s awkward, but I don’t want to confuse the reader, either. A confused reader is an unhappy one, and an unhappy reader stops reading.

  • Rene` Diane Aube says:

    I had only heard “he said/she said” taught as dialogue tags. I’m so glad you brought out the “said synonym” addiction and how it can actually become a distraction for the reader. I saved this article to my one note so I can re-read, highlight, and examine my manuscripts for these offenses and correct them. Thanks a ton! Happy Wednesday! 🙂

  • Laura Jackson says:

    Great stuff!
    This reminds me of when I taught 7th grade language arts. We’d have a funeral for the word said every year….complete with a tombstone and someone reading the definition of the word followed by a moment of silence. We’d surround the tombstone with synonyms for said. 🙂 Good times.
    Now with my writing, I have my own words that I rely on–walk and look being the top two. I let it go in the rough draft and then fix it during editing.

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