Dialogue attributions – More than he said, she said …

Dialogue can be tricky business, and it can make or break a story. The attribution – that part that follows or even precedes the dialogue itself – is more than a mere he said or a she said, although a smatterings of  ‘saids’  is still necessary. The most adept authors will use a mix of methods to create a natural flow as well as creating the mood and the setting without being obvious or awkward about it.

I am going to share some of the tricks established authors use to provide a good flowing dialogue through the skillful use of attributions, and in some cases, leaving the attribution out altogether.

Rather than cite a relatively unknown such as myself, let’s look at some of the work of J.K. Rowling in her book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I happen to be of the opinion that she doesn’t merely ride on the popularity of the films that came out of her Harry Potter series, but the skillful prose that has captured the imagination of children (and adults) the world over. I have just selected some random dialogue sections to illustrate the points I wish to make, and perhaps help other writers develop their craft.

Rowling manages to keep the pace moving with a combination of short, sharp dialogue with no attributions along with using attributions to describe actions and moods of the characters. Look at the following examples:

‘Same as  usual,’ said Harry, as Hermione perched herself on the edge of the bed. ‘They didn’t talk to me much, but I like it better that way. How’re you, Hermione?’

‘Oh, I’m fine,’ said Hermione, who was scrutinising Harry as though he was sickening for something.

First of all, notice that the dialogue is not formal but natural, just like young people would talk to each other. People don’t speak in perfect sentences. They often use phrases as with the first example with Harry speaking.

Now look at the attribution. Fine, Rowling uses a simple said Harry but that is immediately followed with a statement that paints the picture of Hermione sitting on the end of the bed, or rather ‘perched’ which describes the manner in which she sits on the bed. The reader now has a picture of what is happening. The dialogue is also split up, indicating a pause as Harry continues to talk before asking Hermione informally, how she is.

Rowling again uses said Hermione  as she replies to Harry, then followed by an action of her scrutinising him and the manner of her scrutiny. She isn’t merely looking at him; the action suggests much more in her ‘look’ that shows she notices something about his manner. Notice that all this is done without using any awkward adverbs, although Rowling does use a smattering of them also in her books.

Here is another example:

‘Oh … is she here too?’ Harry croaked.

‘No, no, silly boy,’ said Fleur with a tinkling laugh, ‘I mean next summer, when we – but do you not know?’

Her great blue eyes widened and she looked reproachfully at Mrs Weasley, who said, ‘We hadn’t got around to telling him yet.’

Okay, some interesting techniques here. In the first piece of dialogue, Rowling uses ellipses (the three dots …) to indicate a hesitation in Harry’s speech. And in the attribution he is not talking normally, as he croaked, indicating something about his mood or condition. Fleur replies with a tinkling laugh, which describes the type of laugh she had, and thus makes her more real to the reader. Again the attribution serves to pause the dialogue for a moment as Fleur continues talking. An en dash is then used to suddenly cut the dialogue mid-sentence as one would experience in natural speech.

In the next sentence, the attribution introduces the speech instead of going after it. This is another trick to learn. It is far better here to describe the reaction of the character, Fleur, which then takes the reader to Mrs Weasley, who responds to Fleur’s reaction. In one sentence, Rowling has slipped in a description of Fleur’s eyes and the manner in which she looked at Mrs Weasley. Yes, an adverb has been used here – reproachfully – but Rowling gets away with it because it is the best fit for this occasion.  She doesn’t go overboard with her adverbs, rather using them to their best advantage. If she used an adverb in every attribution, it would soon be noticed and grate on the reader.

As you can see in these few examples, dialogue attributions can be applied in various ways and say a lot about the characters as well as setting the mood of the story.

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