He Said/She Said–Attributions in Fiction
When you deal with a lengthy work like a novel, there are opportunities galore to repeat yourself, and being lazy about attributions is a good example of that.
Remember, it doesn’t help to change “she said” to “she exclaimed” as a means of beefing up your writing, although in moderation, that can be fine. Repeating the attribution “said” or finding a synonym for “said” is an example of a rank amateur whose writing is rank. In these cases, leave the attribution out altogether. If your dialogue is arranged properly, your reader should always know who’s speaking, with only a few strategically placed attributions. Sometimes, you can leave the attribution in, if it seems to flow best that way, but as a general rule, place action there instead. The old caveat is still true: Show. Don’t tell.
Here’s an example of being careful not to overuse the attribution “Said,” from my novel Armchair Detective:
She held her cup and saucer in the palm of her hand and crossed one shapely leg over the other. The black pump on her foot began to sway lightly from side to side. I caught her eyes and smiled innocently, having a sip of the fresh ground coffee. It wasn’t as good as Phoebe’s.
“Now then. What sort of arrangement did you have in mind?”
I fought back my reaction to the innuendos that had been present in each sentence uttered by this woman since I came to the door, and instead took another steadying breath. “It looks as though my finances are. . .a bit strained. I’d like to be honest about it. You see, I had to buy tires for my car, since my job requires a good deal of driving.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
Great. I hate this question. There’s no way to legitimize a career of throwing things in people’s driveways from a moving car. “I have a paper route.”
She pursed her lips. “Quaint.”
I resisted the urge to toss my coffee in her face. “I was wondering if maybe you and I could work something out.”
A grin slithered onto Porsha’s lips only briefly. “Perhaps.” She sipped prissily from the china.
I could probably float a loan from Phoebe, but it didn’t feel like an option. Not one I was comfortable with. “I’d like to settle it by putting up some collateral.”
“What sort of collateral is that, Ms. O’Brien?” She sat with her back straight, as if the back of the sofa had daggers protruding from it.
“I thought I would give you the title to my car until I can pay you the back-rent, if that would be okay.” I sat back against the sofa, daggers-be-damned, and sipped my coffee. The cup felt paper-thin in my hands and I was afraid I’d shatter it if I didn’t pay attention to my grip.
“The Falcon, yes.”
“Now what would I do with that silly old thing?”
“You may not care for the car, Ms. Pemberton, but it is worth the amount I owe you. If I default, you would have the title and could sell it at current market value, and I would of course vacate the property so you could rent it again.”
Porsha placed her cup and saucer on the glass table and considered me with a thoughtful sigh. Again, her eyes trailed over me, and her tongue painted moisture across her upper lip. “I’ve an idea. I haven’t had dinner yet. Why don’t you prepare dinner for me at your place, and we’ll discuss it further?”
A frown tickled my brow and was gone. “Dinner? You want to come over for dinner? To my trailer?”
“Why not? I have no other social engagements this evening, and we really must settle this as soon as possible.”
I shifted slightly, resting the cup securely in the saucer for fear I’d drop it. “What do you want?”
“Oh,” she smiled victoriously. “I’m sure whatever you offer me will be delicious.”
I took a final drink of coffee and stood. “Okay. I’ll expect you around seven?”
“Fabulous.” Porsha rose and I set my cup down across from hers. She went to the door to show me out. “I’ll look forward to it,” she murmured.
I cleared my throat and smiled. “Good-bye, Ms. Pemberton.”
Porsha used the door as if it was a fainting couch. “Porsha. Call me Porsha.”
I smiled again. “Porsha.” I followed the cobblestone walkway to the Falcon and got in, pausing to stare at the condo.
Well, this is going to be a barrel of freakin’ monkeys, I can tell.
Readers understand when there is dialogue, complete with quotes around it, that already indicates someone is saying something. No need to belabor the point by adding he said, she said at every line. I noticed that John Grisham does this to an alarming degree and it can be incredibly distracting. On any given page with 11 or 12 lines of dialogue, Grisham will use “said” as the attribution 10 of those times. And I also noticed things like “he said aloud” being used. Now when you “say” something , it is a sure bet that it’s ALOUD. Saying, indicates aloud, so this is superfluous. That’s like saying someone laughed with a chuckle. It’s also disheartening, because a well-known successful writer should never be guilty of irritating the reader with such elementary oversights.
Another aggravation is when a fiction writer begins sentences with same word. It gets irritating for the reader. Plus, it pegs you as incapable of finding the melody and cadence in your writing. . . instead, alter the sentence structure so that you can put that repetitive word elsewhere, or exchange it, or remove it altogether. While checking for the aforementioned stylistic faux pas, it’s a good time to work with melody and cadence; make sure you vary the length of your sentences for the right effect.
Again, Grisham is guilty of this repetitive word thing. Now, while I think Grisham is a great writer as far as the stories he tells and keeping them interesting, there’s just no sense in negating that aspect with a slew of other stylistic errors which serve to water down the impact of those great stories. Not that I’m picking on John Grisham, but I just happen to be reading his book and he just happens to have several examples in it of what not to do as a conscientious writer. And it’s important that we don’t deify writers so much that we overlook the errors that make them just as human as we are. Perhaps that’s the downside of being an established writer, it’s easy to stop being so judicious and mindful about style. But for the rest of us, who aren’t under a contract, we have to continue to pay attention to these things because they will hopefully one day make a difference in getting that beloved contract.
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