Ninja Writers Academy: Attributing Dialogue

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Who Said What Assignment

Ninja Writers Academy-The Who Said What Assignment

Whenever I ask what Ninjas would most like to learn about writing, dialogue always comes up. It’s one of those things that is both super important and often difficult. I thought we’d take the next few weeks and break writing dialogue down to a few elements.

Let’s start with attribution.

Attribution refers to the tag that tells you who’s speaking. Usually something like ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’ or ‘Mary demanded’ or ‘John whispered.’

There are two rules I use when using attribution. First rule: less is more. Use as little attribution as you can get away with. And second rule: use said or asked when you do attribute.

Attribution is obviously useful. It keeps readers from getting confused about which character is speaking. But, it’s also a little road bump in your story. A hiccup in the flow. By using as little attribution as you can get away with and using words (said and asked) that disappear and don’t cause the reader to stop and think about what you’re trying to say, you minimize the stop in the story.

Think about it this way. When you are reading and come across the phrase ‘she said,’ your brain just keeps going. It doesn’t stop (usually) to ask ‘how did she say it’ or ‘what was her tone.’ If you come across ‘she complained,’ then your brain might put on the breaks and ask ‘why was she complaining?’ or ‘what does complaining sound like?’

When you have two people talking and they’re taking turns, you rarely need to attribute. The reader will be able to follow the conversation without more help than an occasional reminder who who is speaking. If you’re writing a conversation between more than two people, you’ll need more attribution, but probably less than you think.

One thing you can do instead of using lots of simple attributions is write beats.

A beat is a little bit of action, usually one sentence, attached to the line of dialogue. A beat can be a gesture, a tic, a little bit of telling physical movement that not only lets your reader know who is speaking, but also builds character or adds to the atmosphere of the conversation.

We’ll talk more about beats next week. This week, I’d like for you to find a section of dialogue from your work-in-progress and work on the attributions.

My Turn

I’m working on edits for a novel called Wasted. The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy named Noah who lives in a trailer in rural Nevada with his grandmother, Bernice, who is an addict. This scene is the lead up to him running away for a night, which changes his whole life. Pay attention to how many lines don’t have any attribution at all and how others have a little action attached to them, rather than simple ‘said’ or ‘asked.’ (There are no ‘said’ or ‘asked’ attributions at all in this sample.)

            Bernice staggered backward a step and looked at the floor at the base of the couch. For her wine, which she’d already finished. Noah pulled the bottle back out and handed it to her.

She looked at the empty bottle like she was really trying to figure out how it got that way. “You drank my wine?”

“I’ve been at school all day.”

“Don’t be smart with me. And don’t drink my goddamned wine.”

Noah wondered if he could scrape together enough bud from old baggies to make at least a skinny joint. “I’m sorry. Can I go to my room now?”

“You know what? I’m going to let them do whatever they want to you. Put you in foster care. Put you in jail. I don’t care. At least I’ll get my life back. I’m done with this. Done.”

“That’s just great. Grandma of the year.”

She cracked him one right across the cheekbone before he could move out of the way. He didn’t see that coming and the sharp pain combined with the stress of the afternoon brought tears to his eyes.

Bernice gave a sharp cackle. “Oh, my God. Are you going to cry now?”

Noah wiped his eyes with his sleeve and kept his mouth shut. There wasn’t anything he could say that wouldn’t piss her off, or make him sound like a whining idiot.

Bernice shook her head, which caused her to lose her already iffy balance, so she had to take a sideways step. “You aren’t a kid anymore, Noah. You’re old enough to stay out of trouble.”

Yeah, he didn’t need this. He picked up his backpack, exposing her crushed pipe. “Next time, I won’t cover for you, Bernice.

She picked up the ruined foil off the floor, almost face planting in the process. “Now I got to make a new one, you little shit.”

He opened the front door. “Have fun with that.”

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Find a passage of dialogue in your manuscript. Work on using as few attributions as possible, and using beats instead of simply ‘said’ or ‘asked.’

Come by Facebook and tell us about your MC’s clan. I’ll be there tomorrow (Sunday) at noon PST for office hours so you can ask any questions you might have.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link every week to the Academy post and an invitation to my Sunday office hours.

If you want some extra accountability for your Academy work, check out the Ninja Writers Kick-in-the-Butt Crew. It’ll help you get it done.

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