He Said/She Said: Speaker Attributes

For my study of bestselling authors, I have switched from a romance novelist to a thriller writer. Thrillers are more my style, so I expected to enjoy myself, but it’s not happening. In his own way, the author of the thriller is as terrible a writer as the author of the romances, which doesn’t say much for the taste of the people who buy these books.

Perhaps I’m too fussy now that I have a basic knowledge of the craft, but some elements cry out for commentary, such as his speaker attributes.

His characters never just said something. They agreed, cautioned, reminded, mimicked, answered, contributed, guessed, explained, responded, admonished, confessed, encouraged, clarified, blurted, pointed, winced, replied, corrected, acknowledged, returned, laughed, challenged, chided, objected, contested, quipped, offered, moaned, complained, repeated, stammered, pleaded, inquired, mumbled, interrupted, confirmed, addressed, countered, advised, completed, allowed, supplied, ordered, asked, continued, chided, answered, whispered, teased, requested, hollered, echoed, declared, informed, spoke, bellowed, spit out, thundered, hissed. All within a few pages. Whew!

The best speaker attribute, as we all know, is the word “said.” Like “the,” our brains barely register it, so it doesn’t yank us out of the story world. But the few times this thriller writer used “said,” he ruined it with an adverb. A professional, he should know that the only time to use an adverb with “said” is when the character’s words are at odds with his mood, such as: “I had a great time,” he said sadly.

In many cases, the writer would have been better leaving off the speaker attributes entirely, particularly when the dialogue was between two characters. It’s not difficult for a reader to figure out which character is talking when there are only two of them. And, to remind us who is talking, all the writer would have had to do was in insert an occasional beat.

Beats, those small actions that accompany a character’s dialogue, help set the stage, tell us about the character’s personality, and vary the rhythmn of the dialogue. Overdone, the beats are as distracting as any other speaker attribute, so the secret is to pay attention to the flow. Do you want short snappy dialogue? Don’t use beats. Do you want to slow things down a bit, keep the dialogue from seeming too disembodied? Use a few beats.

If the thriller writer had followed these simple rules, his work would have been much more enjoyable for me. But I guess I shouldn’t complain. He did give me a topic for today’s post.

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14 Responses to “He Said/She Said: Speaker Attributes”

  1. nomananisland Says:

    Maybe it’s just me as a reader, but I’d rather have the variety of “They agreed, cautioned, reminded, mimicked, answered, contributed, guessed, explained, responded, admonished, confessed, encouraged, clarified, blurted, pointed, winced, replied, corrected, acknowledged, returned, laughed, challenged, chided, objected, contested, quipped, offered, moaned, complained, repeated, stammered, pleaded, inquired, mumbled, interrupted, confirmed, addressed, countered, advised, completed, allowed, supplied, ordered, asked, continued, chided, answered, whispered, teased, requested, hollered, echoed, declared, informed, spoke, bellowed, spit out, thundered, hissed.” then just the word said, over and over. Repetition is worse than variety.

    However, if it’s all within a few pages of each other, variety can be overdone and boring too. But, just as examples, chided, bellowed, hissed, are all descriptive words that let you get a feeling of how loud someone was, or how they felt, and it’s quick. “Said” is so neutral. People whisper, so why not say “whispered”?

  2. Bertram Says:

    My objection with most of those speaker attributes is that they fall under the category of redundancy. For example, if a character is clarifying something, why say “he clarified”? We know he is clarifying. And some of those speaker attributes, like wince, are not even synonyms of said. You’re right, though, said is neutral, which is the point, but it should not be overused. You’re also right that bellow, hiss, and whisper are okay, but the best way is to show if possible. Instead of saying “he hissed,” why not say “he spoke through clenched teeth,” or instead of “he whispered,” why not “His voice was so low she had to strain to hear”?

  3. nomananisland Says:

    I would say because of immediacy, and they’re easy to understand. “his voice was so low she had to strain to hear” could mean he was mumbling, he had a sore throat, he was far away, had a bad phone connection — but everyone knows what whispering means.

    I can speak through clenched teeth because I’m in pain, or straining to open a can of pickles while I’m talking, or (humourously) because I’m straining on the toilet. But if I hiss at someone, you know I’m doing something specific.

    Yes, it’s a good idea to avoid redundancy — but it’s also a good idea to avoid repetition. I’m not defending whatever author you didn’t like (usually, criticisms are valid), I’m just saying that I wouldn’t make a hard and fast rule about words that everyone understands and convey meaning. I think the best thing to do is use what suits the moment the best.

  4. Bertram Says:

    You might think you are disagreeing with me, but your novel says otherwise. Your speaker attributes are in line with what I suggested in my post, and are less intusive than the ones of that bestselling writer!

  5. nomananisland Says:

    I’m not really trying to disagree. It’s more just a shift in perspective — your post makes it look like those words should never be used, and I’m just the type of person who would say “never say never” because almost any word is useful.

    From the sounds of it, the author you’re reading got out a thesaurus and crammed in a lot of unnecessary words too often– but occasional uses aren’t really a problem for me.

  6. Bertram Says:

    That was my point. Occasional uses of any word are not a problem; in fact, I have used many of the speaker attributes that were on that list. But when a supposedly good author uses “reminded” instead of “said” ten times within three or four pages, it does speak of poor writing. And using so many other speaker attributes during those same few pages, does make it look like he crammed in a lot of unnecessary words. In fact, he often accompanied a poor attribute with a good beat, which made the attribute doubly redundant.

    p.s. You’re rght about something else — carrying on a dialogue over two blog sites is fun!

  7. nomananisland Says:

    See, this is what I’m talking about. :)

  8. suzannefrancis Says:

    I like to use varied attributions too. I think too much he said/she said is dull. But…

    You can get carried away with using adjectives. There used to be a category of puns called Tom Swifties, which parodied a series of adventure books called (go figure) Tom Swift and the Whatever, by a syndicate of writers known collectively as Victor Appleton. They were apparently full of narrative like “I just invented a new light bulb,” said Tom brightly.

  9. nomananisland Says:

    If we’re not careful, it’s going to be a dialogue on three blogs because I really like Suzanne’s insight on things too :)

  10. Bertram Says:

    “I’ll protect you,” Tonto said bravely. (I was thinking about that one while I was writing this post.)

    Have either of you heard of gather.com? It’s an adult networking site where writers can go to get critiques on their work, but it seems as if people there are more interested in gathering points for gift certificates than in communicating. This is turning out to be what that was supposed to be.

  11. Novice Says:

    Hola!

    Interesting stuff, speaker attribution.

    Now, is this just an idefix among writers, editors and agents or are there serious polls and surveys among readers that unquestionably corroborate the idea that any speak attribution other than “said” is “poor style”, “amateurish” etc.?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      The theory behind using primarily “said” is that the word is invisible. It’s like “the” in that readers don’t really process the word, whereas if you use a different speaker attribute for each bit of dialogue, then the attribute pops out and makes itself known. The reader focuses on that, and what is said loses its power.

  12. Novice Says:

    Yes, I know it is a theory, what I am asking is if this theory has been tested, verified or corroborated by polls or surveys?

    If not, why not use “said” for default and vary when the situation demands it or opens for it?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Novice, As for polls or tests, I don’t know if they’ve been done, but I do know that my reader friends hate books with too many different speaker attributes. It slows the story.

      But, poll or no, in today’s book climate, using too many speaker attributes such as the ones I pointed out in the above article, brands you as an inexperienced writer.

      Still, you can use whatever words you want. There is no reason to use said in every case. In fact, it’s best if you vary things, sometimes using speaker attributes, sometimes letting an exchange pass without attributing it to a speaker if it’s obvious who is speaking, sometimes using actions.


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