Readers, Writers and Editors: Need Help and Thoughts on Attribution and Dialog Tags

 

SAID_thumb4I have some questions about attribution or dialog tags.

When I wrote the first manuscript of “Red Clay and Roses”, I used very few attribution tags in dialog. Often the action was stated and a comma indicated the quote, followed by the quote, and the end quote.

When the work was edited, the editor told me that I needed more attribution tags throughout the manuscript.

It was a lot of work to go back and add these. The work seemed chopped up to me. There seemed much greater pauses in the action than I had intended. It was also a challenge to come up with unique and original tags for such a long manuscript. The flow was affected, but I left them. The editor said it read better, but I felt I lost some of the writing style.

Now, I am working on a new manuscript. Again, the only time I have been using attribution tags is when I want to indicate a certain tone of voice, or a thought the character is having.

I don’t really want to go back and edit these into the entire manuscript, so I am asking for thoughts on this. Is it a style issue or am I clearly wrong to write so much dialog without attribution tags.

******************************SPOILER ALERT***********************************

Here is an example from my new WIP:

Original

Snatching open the screened door, Claudette found her mother writhing on the living room floor in front of the piano. Blood oozed from a wound on her head. Her limbs twitched and jerked violently and her eyes rolled back. Her jaw was locked. Claudette saw her daddy standing in the kitchen, gun in hand. “I didn’t shoot her! But maybe I should have! She’s having an epileptic fit. I think she hit her head on the piano bench when she fell.”

Claudette looked mildly reassured and knelt beside her mother, “Hand me a cold rag.”

Hershel wet a cloth and brought it to his daughter. “Laura Belle Barber, my own wife, pulled a gun on me, Claudette! She was angry about yesterday’s tips being too little to buy any groceries, she accused me of holding back money from the family to buy liquor, and she pulled a God damned gun on me! I didn’t even know she had a gun!”

Laura Belle relaxed and was snoring deeply in post convulsion slumber. Hershel laid the small pistol on the counter next to the sink, “She pointed the gun at my face, and I pushed her back, grabbing the gun, and that’s when it went off.” He pointed to the hole in the ceiling, “I guess we best check upstairs and make sure nobody got hurt.”

“You do that, Daddy. It’s a small scrape, nothing serious. I’ve got things here. Go on to work afterward. You’re going to be late. You don’t need to be here if someone has called the police. Check with the Marshes upstairs. Tell them you were cleaning the gun when it went off, and then go on to Chuck’s. Here’s your music, get going.” She passed him his briefcase from beside the piano.

Hershel took his briefcase from Claudette as she went back to tending her mother’s wound, “Where’s Carol?”

“I left her outside, just go, Daddy. Like I said, I have things here under control.”

After I added Tags:

Snatching open the screened door, Claudette found her mother writhing on the living room floor in front of the piano. Blood oozed from a wound on her head. Her limbs twitched and jerked violently and her eyes rolled back. Her jaw was locked. Claudette saw her daddy standing in the kitchen, gun in hand.  He immediately began to defend himself, “I didn’t shoot her! But maybe I should have! She’s having an epileptic fit. I think she hit her head on the piano bench when she fell.”

Claudette looked mildly reassured and knelt beside her mother, “Hand me a cold rag,” she demanded.

Hershel wet a cloth and brought it to his daughter. “Laura Belle Barber, my own wife, pulled a gun on me, Claudette!” He explained, “She was angry about yesterday’s tips being too little to buy any groceries, she accused me of holding back money from the family to buy liquor, and she pulled a God damned gun on me! I didn’t even know she had a gun!”

Laura Belle relaxed and was snoring deeply in post convulsion slumber. Hershel laid the small pistol on the counter next to the sink, he continued, “She pointed the gun at my face, and I pushed her back, grabbing the gun, and that’s when it went off.” He pointed to the hole in the ceiling, “I guess we best check upstairs and make sure nobody got hurt.”

“You do that, Daddy. It’s a small scrape, nothing serious. I’ve got things here. Go on to work afterward. You’re going to be late. You don’t need to be here if someone has called the police. Check with the Marshes upstairs. Tell them you were cleaning the gun when it went off, and then go on to Chuck’s. Here’s your music,” she offered, “get going.” She passed him his briefcase from beside the piano.

Hershel took his briefcase from Claudette, as she went back to tending her mother’s wound, and asked, “Where’s Carol?”

“I left her outside, just go, Daddy. Like I said, I have things here under control.”

To me the attribution tags seem to slow down the action and steal the flow from the event. It seems too stifled.

What do you think? Does all speech need to be introduced or qualified?

36 thoughts on “Readers, Writers and Editors: Need Help and Thoughts on Attribution and Dialog Tags

    • That is what I see in what I read. Many times there are multiple dialog streams with no attribution tags whatsoever. Maybe I am just feeling insecure because of my last encounter with an editor who saw things differently. I do feel it impedes an action scene.

        • I agree…Sometimes when there are really long paragraphs exchanged between characters I get confused as to who is saying what. But in this example for instance. I feel that it is clear what the father is saying to his daughter and what she is saying to him, without all of the unnecessary (INHO) attribution tags. The tags seem to make it drawn out and longer than it needs to be…also too choppy.

  1. I use attribution tags all the time to help with tone and it works with my flow. That being said, some of your paragraphs flowed better with and some without. 1 & 4 seemed clearer with the tags while 2 & 3 were kind of clunky. Location of the tag and choice are always important too. So far into a paragraph and you might pick one that only fits the latest sentence. Anyway, I think a mix of the two would work.

  2. I concur with you, perhaps only because that is the way I try to write. Attribution tags are often unnecessary, blunt the flow of the action, and are often overworked/forced, especially when they vary from the stand-by “said.” I like to break up a very long quote with a descriptive line, indicating the speakers action or emotion. A good example is in your revised version where you insert “He immediately began to defend himself.” In the next line, rather than writing “she demanded,” you might describe her next action, such as “she said, taking charge.” In the next paragraph, the “He explained” adds nothing the reader doesn’t already know. In the next paragraph, I’d leave off the “he continued” for the same reason. In the final paragraph I’d leave off the “she offered,” and just have her say, “now get going.” Personally, I find less attribution is usually better, since it often tells the reader what should be obvious from the words of the speaker, and the speaker’s actions tell more than any attribution. That being said, I would use periods rather than commas when an action is described: Herschel laid the small pistol on the counter next to the sink. “She pointed the gun at my face…etc.”

    Just one writer’s opinion, of course.

    Now can we read the rest of the novel? Sounds as if it will be another pleasure.

    • Thank you for sharing. I am feeling the same way. I think it has a lot to do with writing style, and I love your style.

      I am going to do this my way and just put them where I feel it makes some contribution, and describes a character’s personality/behavior only when necessary. I don’t want it overdone to the point of appearing amateurish. It is a serious piece, and needs a serious approach.

      The work is coming out nicely now that I have started to develop the characters and get into their own unique personalities. It will be a while before it is done though 🙂

  3. The editor I’m going to be working with is all about taking out unnecessary dialogue attributions, and I’m finding that my pages flow a lot better without them. I preferred the first version of your work, if I had to choose between the two. Attributions are only really necessary when it’s not clear who’s talking, and the way you’ve structured the actions with the dialogue makes that clear without them. Also, I’m firmly in the “less is more” camp when it comes to attributions other than “said” or “asked.” If I start reading a book and every other line is “he demanded” and “she trilled” and “he grated” (unless it’s cheese), I’ll put it down. That stuff drives me INSANE.

    I look at creative attributions like spices. A few can be fantastic if they help clarify what’s happening, but too many just become distracting and spoil the recipe. I should be able to tell how he said it based on what he said, what he’s doing, and how the scene is going. If I know he’s angry, I don’t need to be told “he growled” after everything he says. Used properly, dialogue tags can bring clarity and help a scene pop. Over-used, you’re absolutely right in thinking they drag the pacing down and become a distraction.

    • Thanks for your input. I am of the same camp. When I am reading, too many attribution tags piss me off. So, naturally, when I write, I want to avoid that. I feel like the finished product of RC&R used too many…I don’t think I achieved that happy balance. I really like what Patrick had to say. I loved his writing style in Corridor of Darkness. Perhaps I should shop around for an editor that won’t crimp my style.

  4. Use tags when the dialogue might be confusing as to who is talking. Long dialogue or back and forth dialogue needs to be broken up with action..Said is the only acceptable tag but you don’t need to add any as in your first example which reads best.
    I also disagree with previous comment regarding, “He immediately began to defend himself.” This is telling. S.h.o.w. him defending himself.

    This is how I was taught..

  5. Claudette looked mildly reassured and knelt beside her mother, “Hand me a cold rag.” The comma should be a period, because there’s no speech tag in there — like said, exclaimed, for instance. In the re-do after you add tags. it should still be a period. Same thing in the paragraph that starts with “Laura Belle relaxed …” the commas after sink and ceiling should be periods.
    As for your larger question, I don’t have a black and white answer for you. There’s a right level for the speech tags. You don’t need them for every statement, but you should have them for some, just to make sure people are following the dialogue and knowing who is doing the talking.
    Personally, I don’t like the first version, but I don’t think you need an attribution tag in every paragraph.

    • The period thing Patrick picked up on also. I really loved his writing style and I have worked it out now where I like both the tags that I have and the flow.

      That’s why they call it a process….It is a writing process. I didn’t see the period needed after, …knelt beside her mother, “Hand me…, but I did add the attribution tag that Patrick recommended at the end.

      Thanks for your input. I appreciate your time.

  6. Your previous commenters have given a detailed analysis of attribution tags with examples from your story, so I don’t need to add to that. But the bigger question, I think, is this: What is the motivation behind editors’ insisting on more attribution tags unless it is to clarify speaker? Overdoing it would appear to assume the reader is not too bright and needs overt signals to indicate change of speaker, tone, etc.

    • I agree, Marian, and I don’t like it when I read an overabundance. You are correct. It seems as if the author is being a bit condescending.

      I think I have it under control now. There were some things I was doing wrong in starting my quotes, but there doesn’t need to be a tag if it is understood who is doing the speaking.

  7. I like the first one. I always look for who owns the paragraph. Since that is clear, I don’t think you need an attribution. I tend to write this way myself.

    My problem is when my characters sound alike. I could fix it with an attribution, but the harder – better fix is to make them all sound distinct. This is what I tried with my character “Roald” who you met on my blog. There’s little doubt when he talks. by golly.

    • That worked very well for Moses Grier and his family in RC & R.

      Gets tougher when working with two sisters, except that their personalities are very different. So that will work out over the course of things. I am not spending too much time on their dad’s voice development though. He won’t be staying around long enough for it to matter too much, by golly!

  8. Hi,
    Just to add my twopence worth… I would put a ‘he said’ after ‘I didn’t shoot her!’ So it would read ‘Claudette saw her daddy standing in the kitchen, gun in hand. “I didn’t shoot her,’ he said (or he explained?), ‘but maybe I should have! She’s having an epileptic fit….’
    I would agree with the full stop (period?) after ‘knelt beside her mother’.
    I would move ‘Laura Belle relaxed and was snoring deeply in post convulsion slumber’ to after Herschel’s second piece of dialogue (because of POV shift from Herschel to Laura and back again). So you would go from ‘I didn’t know she had a gun’ to ‘Herschel laid the small pistol…’
    After ‘…nobody got hurt’, I would bring the focus back on Claudette by having her realise her mother was now over the fit (because she is relaxed, etc.). I presume she would notice this while she is tending the wound with the wet cloth.
    I would also reconsider Claudette going back to tend her mother’s wound after giving her father the briefcase. If she does go back, I think it should be after he’s left.
    To answer your initial question, I don’t think you need all the tags – I agree that tags like ‘he continued’ etc., do slow the action down.
    Hope this is useful.

    • Very useful. I do believe some of my error had to do with improper punctuation more than tags. I have moved a few sentences around to get the POV correct and made some changes. I like better how it reads now. Claudette never really leaves her mother’s side, she passes the briefcase that is on the floor next to her over to her father, the begins tending her mother’s head wound again. Maybe that’s not too clear.Thank you for your input, it is greatly appreciated.

        • I am looking at the sentences that involve Claudette and her mother, and I do believe I can see where there is some need to make their positions clear. I will move another sentence and see how that works. Again, I thank you for stopping in. I would much rather get a handle on this before I get too very deep into this MS.

  9. I’m with you – it does impede the action. My mother had to fight very hard for things like this that she refused to change. I also hate verbs used as speech tags i.e. ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ she laughed – you either laugh or you speak with a laugh.. I’d frankly rather have ‘he said’ ‘she said’ and sparingly than descriptive tags. The writing that surrounds speech can say so much without needing anything. If your characters are sure, the reader will know exactly who’s speaking without it being emphasised ad nauseam. My tuppenny-ha’penny worth!

  10. It’s amazing how many people have such strong opinions about this. There are three popular conventions. There’s the simple he said, she said. There’s the art of qualifying with something specific, but some people feel that the dialog should be clear without it. A modern trend is to do away with the tags, but write in such a way that you don’t need them.

    As a reader, I realize that there are three conventions, so I really don’t care if the author shares my preference, as long as it’s done well. However, people who have strong opinions about this won’t likely feel the same…

    • There were some technical things I was doing wrong with punctuation that needed to be clarified. I get annoyed by too many dialog tags as a reader, but I don’t care for the back and forth banter with no story line at all. I suppose, like so much, it is a matter of preference. I do want to write them correctly whatever I decide to write. So the comments were much appreciated. Your’s too!

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