"Attribution!" He Exclaimed, Exclaimingly

When I'm editing I often find myself marking dialogue tags, explaining how such-and-such a word is redundant. This fancy verb (usually anything that's not a conjugation of to say) needs to go. This adverb (most adverbs, to be frank)—delete it.

How many times does a reader need to be told that someone "exclaimed" something? The exclamation point was the first time the reader was told the character exclaimed something. Did you also tell the reader again with the verb "to exclaim" or some equivalent word? Did you find another exclamatory verb, tack "-ly" to the end of it and throw it on the end of the sentence, to tell the reader a third time?

When I'm editing I'll probably mark those last two in red. The exclamation point was enough. The reader gets it. Anything more is redundant.

In dialogue you want readers to know what was said, who said it and how they said it, but not often in that order. Give them the who and how, but use few (if any) extra words. In writing dialogue you want to find that zone in which you give enough information for the reader to keep track of your story, but not so much that you're telling them everything three times.

If you’ve built the context in the previous sentences your reader will know how it was said and often who said it. Building context leading up to dialogue should be your go-to place to set the stage and tone. If you do it right, there should rarely be a need to tell readers how something was said.

Kill your fancy attributions, and the adverbs that follow them. If your characters are “retorting,” “complaining,” “exclaiming,” and “musing,” and if they’re doing it “assertively,” “whiningly,” “angrily,” or “thoughtfully,” you’re probably just repeating yourself, maybe more than once. Go back and rewrite the context for the conversation so you can eliminate dialogue tags that describe the character's tone or emotional state.

Here's an example of readers being told something three times:

“Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” Debbie complained, angrily.

Readers sigh and close the book. The writing is shallow when you tell them rather than show them. Primary school teachers taught us to fatten our dialogue tags with verbs and adverbs. They were wrong. Free yourself!

Characters say things while they’re doing things. If the doing is done well, you can cut the fat.

Debbie pulled the curtain aside. “Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” Debbie complained, angrily.

Hmmm...I hate it. Readers sometimes need attribution verbs to keep track of a conversation. “Said” is perfect. It's a nearly invisible word, like “the” or “and.” Anything else calls the reader’s attention to the word itself. Once they're forced to remember they’re reading words, the curtain is pulled back, and there you are standing at your contraptions, pushing buttons and pulling levers. We want readers to forget their reading words, and we want them to melt into the story.

I'll try again:

Debbie jerked the curtain aside. “Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” Debbie complained she said, angrily.


I'll give my sentence about Debbie one more take. If what precedes the dialogue indicates who is about to speak (Debbie), and if it conveys how she's acting (abruptly), I've already told the reader who and how. I don't need to tell them again. When she combines her choice of words with that exclamation point, the reader will know that she's frustrated. She's angry. She's fed up with that weirdo she married, who mows the snow-covered grass in their yard. Let the reader create their version of Debbie's emotion. If you've done your work correctly, the reader will know how Debbie feels without being told how she feels.

Debbie jerked the curtain aside. "Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!"

That'll do.

Now that I've trash-talked verbs and adverbs in dialogue tags, I'll reverse course—Maybe those fancier verbs of attribution and their accompanying adverbs are just what you need in a specific scene. Consider them the expensive seasonings in your spice cabinet; they should be used sparingly, with measurement and forethought. Let them be like truffle oil and saffron. Use them where they fit perfectly to enhance the flavor of your writing without calling attention to themselves. Afford yourself only a few drops, or a single string; here and there; an I-can-count-on-five-fingers-the-number-of-times amount of them in your book. Used in this way they won’t overpower your writing, and your readers will more fully enjoy their experience.

Author: James Elliott