Thursday, August 13, 2009

Speaker Attributes

There is a difference of opinion about Speaker Attributes. Some authors, such Brandilyn Collins make a point of avoiding speaker attributes. These authors will often replace a speaker attribute with an action beat. For example, The Martian said, “Take me to your leader.” would become The Martian pointed with his three fingered hand. “Take me to your leader.” On the other hand, some authors would say that this line would be better written as The Martian pointed with his three fingered hand as he said, “Take me to your leader.”

The problem that people have with speaker attributes is that in some exchanges they can be tiresome:

“Give it to me,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because,” she said.

A page full of that and the reader will quickly grow tired. For that matter, the author will grow tired of writing the word said. Let’s take that same exchange and rewrite it so those speaker attributes aren’t so tedious:

Bob and April were walking to class one spring day. Bob had his mind on other things, the birds singing in the trees, the cool breeze blowing across campus and how nice April looked in the dress she wore. He couldn’t tell her that, but he couldn’t help his thoughts. He was deep in his thoughts when he stubbed his toe on a section of raised concrete and dropped the book he had in his hand. While he hopped around on one foot, April picked up the book and pulled out a note he had hidden inside. Her name was visible at the top.

“Give it to me,” he said, forgetting the pain and reaching for the note. Things would not be good if she read that note. He had written it during his last class, calling for her to dump her boyfriend and hook up with him instead, but it was just wishful thinking and he had never intended for her to see it.

“No,” she said, taking a few steps away from him. She held the note behind her, so that he couldn’t reach it.

“Why not?” he asked. He tried to reach around her and then he tried to grab her arm, but she was too quick for him.

“Because,” she said. Out of his reach, she unfolded the note and began to read.

Notice that in this version, the more space we have between the speaker attributes the less tiresome they are. Also notice that the dialog is exactly the same as before. Personally, there are some things I don’t like about attempting to replace the speaker attributes with action beats. That isn’t to say that I don’t use that at times, but when I read I like seeing speaker attributes, within reason. At times, we don’t need anything to tell us who is speaking. The conversation switches back and forth between two characters and their words make it clear. We can use various techniques, but the important thing to remember is that speaker attributes involve verbs and we shouldn’t use the same verb too often. It isn’t that we need to avoid speaker attributes, but we need to put some space between them. After we use one, we need some more verbs before we use one again. If we do that, then speaker attributes will add to our story rather than taking away from it.

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