It’s a funny thing, dialogue attribution. One of the greats, and therefore not to be ignored lightly, Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, suggests there are only two valid ways of writing it: “he said”; “she said”.Stephen King says pretty much the same on this in his book On Writing, and it’s advice well worth following. Like out friend Dutch, he knoweth of what he speak.
But you have to be a bit careful following to the letter what writers tell you is sound advice, the kind of thing that later gets set in stone as rules. You can read Jeffrey Archer’s advice and consider that. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is worth taking a look at and considering carefully. But sometimes you’ve got to break the rules. Elmore Leonard’s rules are good for Elmore Leonard, and for writing Elmore Leonard books. They might not be good for you. Or me. Or for the books we’re writing.
But, for the most part – and I say most part because rules are meant to be broken now and again – I’m with Messers Leonard and King. He said. She said. Keep it simple. Let the characters talk. Overhear what they’re saying.
When dialogue attribution gets out of hand - all that “he retorted, she returned,” stuff - it turns the page into a sparring ground. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are actually saying. Ink clutter. It’s like static. Remember, you’re reading with your eyes, listening through your eyes. Put too much clutter either side of what’s being said and you can miss what is being said.
Jane Austin hardly used dialogue attribution at all. You’ll find the odd bit here and there in her work, but for the most part, she just lets you listen to the dialogue with your eyes. It’s a nice trick if you can pull it off. Jonathan Carroll, in his earlier, first person books, does it elegantly and without fuss.
Surprisingly, so does Martina Cole, in her East End gangster novels. Which is sort of what I’ve been getting around to. And the main thrust propelling this blog post forward.
Recently people were invited to send Martina some questions via Twitter. She’d answer some of the questions sent on a video on You Tube.
I asked her about her use of dialogue attribution, the s/he said stuff, and the fact she rarely uses it. She replied here.
But she didn’t really answer my question.
Maybe there was static in it somewhere.
But it was nice of her to spare me the time and talk a little about her writing.
It's well meant. There's no malice in it. None at all.
"You know, sometimes I get tired as well . . ."
Said ever so sympathetically, of course, as if to a suspected simpleton, one who hasn't worked out that simplest of truths, that when you do something – exert yourself – you burn up energy and are going to wind up tired. Maybe even exhausted if you've really done a lot.
With a smile. A sweet smile. And knowing eyes.
Well, yes, actually. Yes, I do know that when you do things it tires you, that other, perfectly healthy people, get tired too. I've figured that much out.
But I don't say as much.
Something else I don't say. I don't say to a blind person, You know, sometimes, when it's dark, I can't see either . . .
Because that's not only tactless, it's cruel. And the people who tell me that they get tired as well are not, in any way, shape, or form, being cruel. Tactless, perhaps, maybe even a little thoughtless. But no, there's no cruelty there.
It begins, as so much seems to begin, with an assumption. And the assumption here is kindness. You look, for the most part, perfectly fine. Perhaps you're a little pale, a little run down. But there's no obvious disadvantage. You're not, if you're one of the lucky ones, in a wheelchair. You're not holding yourself up on sticks or crutches (though I have been there and done that and don't particularly want to do it again). So as a small act of kindness, it's okay to tell you that sometimes they get tired too. Maybe that will sink in, and you'll pull yourself together and stop being so depressingly needy and tired and so all-about-you.
You could take offence. You could feel misunderstood. You could feel patronised.
My advice is not to. Because of where that kindness is coming from. It's well meant. There's no malice in it. None at all.
It is, in fact, a small attempt at someone trying to step into your shoes and walk a mile in them. It's a person extending empathy in your direction.
Unless, of course, it isn't; and it's just someone blundering in thoughtlessly, telling you to get a grip and stop whining.