Playing Tag: 3 attribution alternatives for cleaner dialogue

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February 23, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals

Attributing quotation to the right speaker is essential for clarity, but the traditional tag (he said…she said…said the butler) is not the only way to do this. Nor is it always the best way. A good reader can intuit all kinds of cues as indicators for who is speaking, and the careful writer draws on the whole range of them.

 

Here are 3 attribution strategies that forego the traditional tag…

1) Attributive ACTION: the last one to act in the narrative paragraph indicates the next speaker…

An example:

Harris reached down toward his feet and pulled the broken rattler fang from the cuff of his pants. Luke took another seed from his hat and inspected it. He looked across the fire.
“So the mines in Oklahoma didn’t have what you’re looking for?”

 

And another:

The ferry jerked along through the little cataracts, and the horses shifted on their feet to keep upright. As they approached the landing, the man on the stool whistled at the boy.
“You gonna dock this, or am I doin that too?”

 

In both situations, I have more than one speaker present. The dialogue has been broken by narration, so I need to be careful about attributing the next spoken line. This method is a kind of subtle pointing or a clearing of the throat. It’s just enough of an indicator that we get who’s speaking, even though an explicit “he said” is not there.
2) EMBEDDED Attribution: The tag is embedded in the preceding narrative paragraph rather than in the quote…

Dr. Carey watched the monologue with amusement, and then Thomas slipped back to an internal one and only his lips moved. Dr. Carey spoke again.
“I noticed we’re not under steam power, and yet the winds are very light.”

 

This one’s a hybrid, somewhere between attributive action and an actual tag. In this case, leaving the narration with Thomas in his internal monologue would have risked a misreading of the quote as belonging to Thomas. The reader would have to back up and think, “Oh yeah, it’s internal. This must be the doctor talking.” And backing up is exactly what we’re trying to avoid in attribution (in all of our writing, right?). Putting it at the end of the narration as an action, avoids the only other alternative, which is a tag at the beginning of the quote. And I really don’t like tags at the beginning of quotes.
3) IMPLIED Attribution: In this method, there is no explicit language acting as attribution at all. Either the content of the dialogue or the speakers themselves are distinctive enough that attribution is clear. In the example below, there are seventeen speaking parts and no tags.

“We’ll put the coastline under the horizon soon, but we’ll continue on this course. It’ll be another eight hours before we put our topmasts under their horizon. Understand?”
“Yessir. I understood the first time. We’re on a sphere.”
George looked at him again and then laughed.
“Is that not right?”
“No, you’re…Yes, Mr. Mench, you’re exactly right.”
“Why did you laugh?”
“We’re on a sphere.”
“Sir?”
“To think that way, that our world is spherical, is…well. Most people on land don’t think that way.”
“We’re not on land.”
“No…again, you’re right, but you have spent your whole life there.”
“Yes…”
“Afraid of the ocean.”
“I was. Yes.”
“It’s like you spent your life there just waiting to start life here.”
“I don’t think…I don’t think that…”
“Never mind, Mr. Mench.”
“Yessir.”

 

No tags, and yet attribution is clear because there’s plenty here to imply it. George mentions the other speaker’s name twice. Mr. Mench’s responses are all similar: short and deferential. Yes, there is one narrative line that doesn’t indicate the next speaker, but even that’s not a problem because we get that the question following it – “Is that not right?” – can only be Mench’s response to George laughing.

The key to this method is being in the habit of questioning every use of attribution. If I’m not questioning, then I’ll put them in automatically. But even when I am, my tendency is to err on the side of too many. So in an editing pass, this is exactly the kind of passage I would comb for unnecessary tags.

 

The goal in careful attribution is CLARITY. And while nothing should come at its expense, clarity need not come at the expense of STYLE.  Looking beyond the simple tag to those cues that rely on reader intuition preserves both.

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