Traycer (traycer_) wrote in fandom_grammar,
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Answer: Attribution Verbs in Dialogue

alethiaxx asks: What is acceptable/unacceptable in terms of attribution verbs in dialogue? ("spoke", "spat", "laughed", "questioned")

With examples from Stargate SG-1:


Attribution verbs in dialogue (also known as dialogue tags) are used to convey how words are spoken by the characters in a story. Most authors go with the word, "said", but sometimes other words are used to "spice" it up a little. After all, "he said, she said" can be boring if used after every single utterance.

For example:

“I live here. I cannot leave, nor would I want to,” the image of Daniel said.

“Look,” Jack said. “Just tell me how to leave and you can go back to living with all those memories. I’m sure I left you with a lot to ponder over.”

“Memories are mirrors of our souls," Daniel said. "They show us who we are and help us to understand what we’ve become. Your memories can help you, or they can destroy you. It is up to you to decide how you want this to end.”

“I want this to end now. I want out," Jack said.

“You can never leave here," Daniel said. "There is no way out.”

“There’s a way out,” Jack said. “I just gotta find it.”

“The others thought the same way – except for the children, of course.” Daniel said. “The children were not the best subjects to study. I am glad that the elders banned the children from entering the temple.”

“The children didn’t have enough memories,” Jack said.

“That is correct,” Daniel said.

Now let's try this using the word "said" sparingly:

“I live here. I cannot leave, nor would I want to.”

“Look,” Jack said. “Just tell me how to leave and you can go back to living with all those memories. I’m sure I left you with a lot to ponder over.”

“Memories are mirrors of our souls. They show us who we are and help us to understand what we’ve become. Your memories can help you, or they can destroy you. It is up to you to decide how you want this to end.”

“I want this to end now. I want out.”

“You can never leave here. There is no way out.”

“There’s a way out. I just gotta find it.”

“The others thought the same way – except for the children, of course. They were not the best subjects to study. I am glad that the elders banned the children from entering the temple.”

“The children didn’t have enough memories,” Jack said sadly.

“That is correct.”

As you can see, overusing the word "said" in a story is repetitive. Leaving out the attributions works just as well during a conversation between two people. This goes along with the "show, don't tell" theory of writing because we don't need to be told who is speaking, it's pretty obvious with the separation of the dialogue.

It's better to not use any attribution at all than to be bombarded with the same word over and over again. You could even try finding creative ways to express the spoken word, but be careful. Digging through a thesaurus can cause more harm than good.

Now to get into the meat of alethiaxx's question. Adding in creative words like "spoke" (which should never be used), "spat" (or "spit"), "laughed" and "questioned" to convey dialogue doesn't always translate well. For one thing, a person can't "laugh" a sentence, nor can they "spit" a reply (at least not without an image of saliva accompanying the words). And why say something was questioned when "asked" would be a better choice and much easier to understand?

Other attribution verbs that should not be used in dialogue are smiled, grinned, leered, sneered, persisted, retorted, guessed, worried, beamed, remembered, considered, scowled, and frowned (among many others). These words have been used by authors as a dialogue tag, conveying a meaning that could have been expressed simply by using the word said, or better yet, a description of the action surrounding the dialogue.

Let's take the above example, and add in some of the other attributions that sometimes show up in stories:

“I live here. I cannot leave, nor would I want to,” the image of Daniel smirked.

“Look,” Jack sighed. “Just tell me how to leave and you can go back to living with all those memories. I’m sure I left you with a lot to ponder over.”

“Memories are mirrors of our souls," Daniel opined. "They show us who we are and help us to understand what we’ve become. Your memories can help you, or they can destroy you. It is up to you to decide how you want this to end.”

“I want this to end now. I want out," Jack demanded.

“You can never leave here," Daniel growled. "There is no way out.”

“There’s a way out,” Jack insisted. “I just gotta find it.”

“The others thought the same way – except for the children, of course.” Daniel sneered. “The children were not the best subjects to study. I am glad that the elders banned the children from entering the temple.”

“The children didn’t have enough memories,” Jack groaned.

“That is correct,” Daniel laughed.

Do you see the difference? You were stopping at each attribute, subconsciously processing it before moving on to the next. Not to mention that "smirked" and "sneered" describe what the speaker is doing as he speaks, not the way the words are spoken. In other words, people can't smirk a word. Nor laugh a word, or sneer a word. It just does not happen.

It's been said by many, that "said" is so ingrained in our reading habits, that it's almost invisible. Most people don't even see the word "said" when they are reading a story, as long as it's used sparingly. With this in mind, "said" really should be the default word when used in dialogue attributions. It's the acceptable way to write.


And just for fun, here is the above dialogue with action interspersed throughout to show how to spice up your writing without using said in every line of dialogue or a thesaurus to find alternate attributes.

Jack didn’t like the sound of that, but he forged on anyway. “Just who are you anyway?” The image didn’t respond, but Jack was far past caring. “I mean, besides the fact that you’re an idiot.” No reaction whatsoever, which had Jack pushing a little harder. “You hide out in this… this… maze, waiting for someone to fall into your little game, and for what? So you can get your jollies off of their memories? What kind of life is that? Pretty pathetic if you ask me.”

“I live here. I cannot leave, nor would I want to.”

The frustration that had been plaguing Jack from the moment he had fallen through the floor of the temple was building up to rage, as he stared at the alien who had taken on the persona of Daniel. Talking to this guy was like talking to a brick wall. “Look,” he said, trying hard to stay calm. “Just tell me how to leave and you can go back to living with all those memories. I’m sure I left you with a lot to ponder over.”

“Memories are mirrors of our souls. They show us who we are and help us to understand what we’ve become. Your memories can help you, or they can destroy you. It is up to you to decide how you want this to end.”

“I want this to end now. I want out.”

“You can never leave here. There is no way out.”

“There’s a way out,” Jack said, determination moving in. “I just gotta find it.”

“The others thought the same way – except for the children, of course.” Daniel shook his head, then stared off into space at a spot behind Jack. “The children were not the best subjects to study.” He then looked back at Jack. “I am glad that the elders banned the children from entering the temple.”

“The children didn’t have enough memories,” Jack said sadly. He had been dealing with a crap load of fears himself, as he had made his way through the maze, and he was an adult. He could just imagine what a little kid went through.

“That is correct.”

Jack was getting nowhere with this guy, but he was determined to keep trying. He finished off his energy bar, dropping the wrapper onto the floor as he struggled to get up. His arm was throbbing, and Jack saw that it was still bleeding. He put pressure on the makeshift bandage, as he looked toward the mirror where his tormentor was standing, still staring out at him through Daniel’s image. “Just how many people have you killed?”

Just remember, as a rule, certain attribute verbs are acceptable, such as asked and growled, but the best possible word to use in all dialogue is "said".
Tags: !answer, author:traycer_, dialogue, dialogue:tags
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