"A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings but a cat does not." -Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What Should It Be, He Said or He Sighed: The Basics of Attributions

Attributions are the words used to define who is speaking, for many beginner writers it is difficult to decide where to place them or even which ones to use. Even experienced writers can struggle with them from time to time. How about you, do you ever struggle with attributions?
Usually, the straightforward way of using attributions follows one certain standard: Dialogue–Character–Action, as in, “Good afternoon.” Mary said. However, it’s also possible to reverse the order. Let’s explore:

“Good afternoon.” said Mary. (Dialogue – Action – Character)

Mary said, “Good afternoon.” (Character – Action – Dialogue)
In my opinion, the second example is the better option. For two reasons: One, it reads smoother, and two, it works particularly well in long passages because it gives the reader a clue as to whom is speaking.

Another technique used to help promote smooth reading is to place the attribution after the first phrase in the dialogue. For example: “I’ve been all over the world.” Mary said, “but I have never seen anything like what you’re wearing.”

When it comes to deciding which attributions to use I have found through experience, the simpler the better. Often times, it’s best just to leave it at “Said.” or "Says." However, there are many writers who feel using these attributions to be bland and they worry that repeating them over and over would annoy many readers. But did you know a majority of readers find them to be invisible? It’s the use of synonyms which can make a reader become annoyed, simply because most times they are physically impossible! Let’s explore:

“Good afternoon.” Mary sniffled.
“Good afternoon.” Mary grunted.
“Good afternoon.” Mary sighed, slowly sipping a cup of tea.

I truly would like to see someone sniffle or grunt a word. The last one is a good example of being physically impossible, and it contains an adverb!

Often times, scenes with dialogue will have four or more characters and it can become extremely confusing as to whom is speaking and it can become distracting if you are using “Said.” or "Says." each and every time. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind when writing dialogue to keep the amount of characters limited, preferably to two or three at the most, that way you can use less attributions.

Next week, we’ll explore a technique used which will allow you to eliminate some of the attributions all together and sharpen your dialogue.

Until next time,

Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin
The Unknown Author


  1. I like to keep it as simple as possible. Some writers don't use enough attributions and it's tough to tell who is saying what. Stephen King says to use he said, etc. He claims that's enough. I agree wholeheartedly. I did do some grunting in the gym this morning, though.


  2. You're right, sometimes said says it all. Efi Loo wants to know what you grunted in the gym today?
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  3. My grunting is not for the ears of a sweet kitty. :D