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Dialog Attribution: Why King Said So?

Stephen King said, “Somebody said, ‘blah, blah,’ is the best way to attribute dialogs.”

In On Writing, Stephen King said that the best dialog attribution terms are ‘said,’ ‘say,’ etc. On Writing is King’s best-selling non-fiction on how to write better.

When you read a novel or a short story, you usually encounter what characters speak, in their own words. For instance,

Joe said, “I am here to know about it.”

Steve said, “You will learn.”

These are dialog attributions, which tells you who said a particular thing. They are very important in a work of fiction in order to show you what is happening in a scene. While it is so, we may encounter sentences like the following.

Harry jerked out at last, “I can’t go.”

Tim mouthed his reply, “Then I will do it.”

In these sentences, the speaker does a certain action like jerking out or mouthing, and it is told to the readers by the author. When you read such sentences, you find it rather amusing at first, but its overuse is jarring and boring as hell.

Why King Said So?

King has expressed an extreme distaste over the dialog attribution of the second category said above. These are lifeless attribution methods according to him, and should be avoided in well-written works. Though the reason is evident through the two sentences mentioned above, let me clarify it once again.

When you read any such inelegantly written dialog attributions, just understand that the reason behind it is that the writer writes what he can’t show through his words. For instance, see this sentence:

Tim said, “I-I c-can’t have done that … Sorry!”

In this sentence, it is evident that Tim is apologizing and stammering in his apology (maybe he did something wrong and is worried for it). The waiting (while he is thinking and selecting his apology word) is shown through an ellipsis, and his stammering is evident from ‘I-I’ and ‘c-c.’

Another way to write the same is:

Tim worded his apology, “I can’t have done that” and after a pause, added, “sorry!”

This looks inelegant as hell, compared to the previous one. This is exactly what King wants us to learn. Just ‘said’ is enough when you have what it takes in the dialog. So, try to show emotions in the text; show what a character feels. Writing dialogs is an art by itself, and it has to be learned to be a successful writer. Making your readers feel each situation is very important. And terms like “jerk out,” “murmur,” “shout,” “scream,” etc., are fine up to an extent and should never be overused. Remember the big rule in fiction writing: Show and never, ever tell.”


In the meanwhile, please go through some of my top posts.

Semantics of Words

How to Write Your First Draft?

Some English Errors

The Main Reason Why Your Writing Fails

Concrete Writing

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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