Attributions are one of the least understood little devices used in writing, I think. I see them misused all the time, and have done so myself way too often.
Proper attributions help the reader see and hear how a person is speaking. A few proper attributions can enhance dialogue. Here’s a simple example.
“Don’t tell Mama,” she whispered.
The biggest confusion about speaker attribs is that there is so much disagreement on what is, and isn’t, a proper attribution. Some are clear. Like whisper. Or hiss. They are descriptions of ways we can talk. Often a beat or other description can do a better job than these attribs, but they are legitimate. I would, however, suggest using these attribs only when truly needed.
But some are not so clear. I like snarl. ‘He snarled’ is a wonderful attrib. Yet I know both writers and editors who don’t consider it appropriate. “A person can’t snarl dialogue,” they say. I beg to differ, using as a reference dictionary.com:
2. To speak angrily or threateningly.
However, some are clearly inappropriate. Pouted for example. You can’t pout dialogue. The word would be great in a beat, but not as an attrib. The same goes for smile, frown, etc.
A third way that attribs are incorrectly used is when they tell the reader something that, if the dialogue and scene are well-written, the reader will know anyway.
“You’re right,” she agreed.
“You’re dead wrong,” he argued.
This is condescending to readers – telling them what they already know. Some editors use an acronym to clue writers they are telling their readers something obvious. RUE – Resist the Urge to Explain. But we’ll talk more about RUE next time.
originally published in The Sword Review 2005-12-18