Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A to the Q: Speaker Attributions

While doing a bit of electronic file shuffling yesterday, I found several documents containing Q&As from some of the online writing workshops I've taught. That triggered my memory of an email folder full of responses to questions about the children's writing biz I've sent out to students, clients, and other interested folks. So I asked myself, "Hey, why not start a regular blog feature in which I share one question (and one relevant answer, of course) per installment?" And I answered myself, "Done. I'll call the feature A to the Q." Hope you'll find the topics useful!

Q: Lisa, here is a rather basic question. What are your thoughts on he said/she said vs. nothing said, or else more descriptive verbs, like “she added,” “he whispered,” “I teased,” etc. For picture books, must we always have a person identified as the speaker?

A: Ah, how to handle speaker attributions. When writing for kids, for the most part, yes, you must always identify the speaker. In a simple running dialogue, you should ID each speaker, but certainly there are cases in which you can skip an attribution or two . . . an example would be skipping the last one on a page or in a section in a two-person dialogue.

The level and style of a picture book will also inform your actions. In a book targeted to more skilled readers, you might have more dialogue and make more assumptions that the reader can keep up. Or you could write a picture book for the very young in which you show just one character on a spread (or just one who is old enough to speak). For that type of presentation, explicit attributions — and even the conventional quotation marks — are unnecessary.

In my writing, I like to try to stick with “he said/she said” or “said Herbie/asked Herbie” (or “Herbie said/Herbie asked” . . . just use consistently throughout). I think it’s a good idea to try to avoid more descriptive verbs in favor of letting the spoken part color the speaker’s intent, but I don’t stick to that by ANY stretch of reality. Although the longer I do this, the better I get at letting the dialogue itself do the talking — I will happily cop to being able to see a clear evolution in my attribution style over the years. Of the examples you noted, I find “added” and “whispered” innocent and useful, with “teased” great when judiciously used. Some will argue that “said” is the only way to go, but my personal feeling as a writer-editor-reader is that sometimes the extra shading just works.

As for taking it a step further with verb-adverb embellishments — for example, “angrily shouted,” “proclaimed loudly,” or “sobbingly replied” — my advice is to back away from the flourish! Again, I have committed more than my fair share of attributional sins in the past, so I pass no judgment. Working with these types of picky issues is just part of the game, and anyone working hard to refine his or her craft will deal with this one sooner or later (and then forever).

Click here for a discussion that closely aligns with my feelings on speaker attribution. It’s not directed toward children’s writers, but I still think it applies.


Anonymous said...

Great idea for a feature! Looking forward to seeing more. Thanks so much for your informative response to my email. Hope we can meet at a local writers' event sometime soon.

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you mean about the flourish. I fell into that habit trying to be more descriptive, but ended up being too wordy. Good advice, thanks for sharing!