“I cannot abide dialogue attribution,” he uttered angrily…

If the over-use of adverbs is one of writing’s biggest crimes, then dialogue attribution has to be up there with murder (and can easily murder a good novel). Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for adverbs in good writing, but that place is small, exclusive, and should be reserved for only the most upstanding and respectable adverbs. But – and it’s a bigger but than Kim Kardashian’s – when we come to adding an adverb to dialogue, well then that adverb must be really, really special to be allowed a place on the page.

For the most part, I like to talk about writing on this blog. Generally, I try to keep to what I think should be done when writing and how I personally like to do things… even though these two don’t often agree with each other. I don’t usually like to moan about the craft of writing, but sometimes, just sometimes, I get so cross I simply have to put pen to paper (so to speak).

Regular readers (hi, you two) will know that unnecessary adverbs are a huge gripe for me. And recently I had a run-in with a set of adverbs that annoyed me greatly (ahem).

Here’s an example of one of them, which I came across while reading a short story about some kids exploring a haunted railroad track:

“Keep your voice down,” I said glumly.

Lovely, isn’t it?

On the whole, this story was a really good horror short, but the dialogue attribution sprinkled throughout ended up cheating me of the enjoyment. The character who says this is the scared one, and (for me) “Keep your voice down” could have been said in many ways: with anger, fear, authority, trepidation, or appeal. But by adding “glumly“, the author took me to place I didn’t want to be. Glumly really didn’t fit the moment. It robbed the expression of any apprehension and turned it all, well, a little bit glum. That one little word sliced away a huge chunk of the scene’s atmosphere.

While this was, overall, a great short story, I could never read a whole novel that did this. I know as writers we must guide the reader through our world, showing them the perils of our heroes, but we must also respect the readers and let them come to their own conclusions about the way a certain character is feeling. As I mentioned in a previous post, the reader is often more intelligent than us authors, so let them do the imagining. I’ve come to learn (after days and days of editing my own stuff) that leaving out adverbs lets the reader insert their own thoughts into the scene – and who better to envision that scene than the person actually reading the book?

Funnily enough – and regarding this very subject – I revisited a set of books that I absolutely adored a few years ago (and still do to this day), but I was shocked to see so much of this stuff littered throughout the dialogue. These books were one of the biggest inspirations for my own novel, and I was really looking forward to revisiting them. During this second read, however, I noticed that the author is serial addict of dialogue attribution and, consequently, I now find myself struggling to enjoy these books as much as I did before. There’s so much darkly, happily, resolutely, firmly, bravely and glumly sprayed over the pages that this author even had one line that read, “You have,” Westman said with no particular emphasis. Still, crimes to literature aside, I won’t be naming and shaming this author as I do still love his books, and he does still remain a bit of a hero or mine – adverb abuse or not.

There is, of course, that other dialogue attribution crime of replacing ‘said’ with some flowery verb like ‘mumbled’, or ‘protested’, or ‘observed’. I personally don’t mind this as much, so long as it’s used sparingly and doesn’t extend far beyond ‘asked’, ‘replied’ or ‘whispered’.

Nevertheless, with both forms of dialogue attribution, the guideline is simple: create the scene and write the dialogue so that we understand exactly in which manner or tone the character is talking, and exactly what they are trying to say without reverting to massive great signposts that whack you over the head. Yeah, yeah, I know: that’s easier said than done.

Rant over.

Thanks for reading.


10 comments on ““I cannot abide dialogue attribution,” he uttered angrily…

  1. I love this post! Just, in general, I feel that writers do a little *too* much for us as readers. My imagination is a wonderful thing. Provide me with the base of a good story, and I guarantee my mind can turn in into my own top-notch mental movie. Forcing me to see/hear things exactly as they envision it, though, makes it sort of ‘meh’ at times.

    • gpeynon says:

      Meh indeed. You have hit the nail on the head there when you say the author forces you to see/hear things; that’s just how it feels. Plus it smacks of reading books to my children.

  2. I am of the opinion that if a writer wants to be vague and not determine what the reader feels/sees/hears then they are in the domain of poetry. A prose writer’s task is to be as concisely explicit and exact as possible, and that to quite a substantial degree is the task of adjectives and adverbs. Long may they live! Long may they be used!

    • gpeynon says:

      Wow, that’s certainly an against-the-grain view, and not one you hear very often (but hats off to you for sticking to your guns).I love adjectives and, like I said, there is a place for adverbs, but for me, the writer who relies too much on these is like the cook who only ever uses a microwave: lazy and unimaginative.Treating readers like dummies, with no insight or imagination of their own, is an insult to many. But conversely, many other readers do require a helping hand. I guess a lot of it is about target audiences.

  3. Yes! I have such a problem with this. When I’m writing I just enjoy being so overly descriptive…writing out everything just how I imagine it. Often it sounds great in my head, then once I go back to re-read and edit, I realize just how distracting and unpleasant it sounds the majority of the time. Sometimes it gets more than a little annoying! 😝

    • gpeynon says:

      I feel you on this one. I throw adverbs around like confetti when I’m writing, but it’s during the editing process that I cringe and then cull them.

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