Say What, er, I Mean, How?

beats, attribs, and dialogue tags

A dialogue tag indicates who is speaking (said, asked, etc.) – and sometimes how as well:

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he asked breathlessly. “Let’s go.”

An attribute is a more descriptive way of telling who is speaking (these are sometimes called CSA’s – colorful speaker attributions):

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he growled. “Let’s go.”

A beat gives action:

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” His eyes shone as took her hand and tucked it into his arm. “Let’s go.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” He snatched her by the back of the neck, a sneer on his face. “Let’s go.”

The trend now is to use more beats than dialogue tags or attribs merely because it can do so much to set the scene and help the reader really see what’s going on.

It’s not that dialogue tags or attribs are bad, just that beats are better. Some writers advocate completely eliminating dialogue tags and attribs; however, I merely try to use them sparingly. It’s all a matter of voice and style.

One last problem with attribs is that some of them end up explaining what the reader knows, but that’s a topic for another column.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-11-01

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5 Responses to “Say What, er, I Mean, How?”

  1. Good breakdown. I tend to use mostly action beats as well, but will throw in some tags here and there, especially if I feel the pacing needs to be faster but need to ensure the reader knows who is talking. But I like the body language side of action beats adding to what is being said, and makes for smoother dialog in my opinion.

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  2. Thanks, Rick. I agree, beats are better, but I also use tags. What I think is funny is reading *pro* writers (I shall leave them nameless) who use extraneous tags:

    “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” He snatched her by the back of the neck, a sneer on his face. “Let’s go,” he said.

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  3. Yeah, I learned early on that you use one or the other, but both is redundant. I think I read that in a good book on editing fiction I read back in 2006.

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  4. Yep. Read it too – in various places. And follow it. But I’m surprised how many Big Names I’ve seen do that. I guess when you’re a Big Name how you write doesn’t matter.

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  5. […] in Dialogue Say What, er, I Mean, How? Using Speaker Attributions Properly Talking about Dialogue LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

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