To Attribute or Not to Attribute

I want to share a little secret with you. Along with a healthy obsession with science and the Cosmos, if there’s one thing Carl Sagan was passionate about it was his Baloney Detector kit. But if it was two things, it was beta reading his friend’s manuscripts and discovering they didn’t know what the bleep they were doing when it came to attribution.*

What is attribution? The most common way we see this done in writing is with said. There are other ways to do it: replied, growled, retorted, hollered, yelled, screamed, etc. etc. etc.

And there are plenty of ways not to do it. So for the sake of all the beta readers, editors, agents, peeps out there who want to stab their eyes out rather than read wrong attribution one more time, I present to you.

attribution jae scribbles

I think the best way to do this is using examples. And since Man of Steel is coming out this month, we’ll do it Supes style. Ready, set, up, up and away!

EXAMPLES

Once upon a time there was a man named Clark Kent, and he had a secret. “I’ve just let my good pal Carl Sagan beta read my manuscript, and boy did he have a lot of feedback”, Clark said.

WRONG!

The correct way to attribute this would be: “…boy did he have a lot of feedback,” Clark said. When putting within quotes a sentence that is followed by attribution that would normally end in a period, replace that period with a comma within the quotes and stick the attribution on the outside of the quotes.

“That is correct,” he said.

“But you haven’t identified who said it,” I added.

“I thought that much was obvious. It’s me Clark,” he continued.

Get the point?

But don’t use a comma if it isn’t attribution following. Like so:

“Know what song I really hate? That Five For Fighting Superman song. It makes me sound like a cry-baby wimp,” Superman crushed the CD. <–more on this below, but use a period in this situation where the comma was.

KEEP ‘EM ALL INSIDE

But what about question marks, exclamation points, ellipses and em dashes? How do we attribute them?

“Good question,” said Clark. “Fooled you! That statement wasn’t actually a question, but sometimes writers accidentally write it with a question mark.”

“Then how do you do it?” I asked.

“Exactly like you just did. Well done!”

Question marks and exclamation marks alike remain inside the quotes, just like a comma would. There’s no need for any of this stuff:

“But what about this?”, he asked, adding another comma for good measure.

“You don’t need a comma after the quotes. It’s wrong!” I cried.

IF YOUR MOUTH ISN’T DOING IT, IT’S NOT ATTRIBUTION

This one I’ve seen a lot more lately all over the place, and I must protest. Please, please, please don’t do this anymore. You’ll make all your peeps super happy and agents won’t auto-reject you anymore (Note: This only works if this was the only reason they were auto-rejecting you.)

Superman wanted to catch a flick, so he flew over to the theater and hovered just outside of it. Using his x-ray vision and super hearing, he just watched the movie outside. “It’s not like there are any laws against this,” he hovered close to the wall.

WRONG!

See what happened here? Sometimes I think writers are trying to marry action with dialogue that should never be joined together like that in the first place. You can’t hover your speech. And action is NOT attribution, unless it includes something that you can do with the mouth, like gasping, laughing, yelling, etc.

But it can get tricksy. There are things you can do with your mouth that don’t work to attribution either, such as:

“This is a really interesting post,” she smiled. <–Okay, but it’s not really a smile that did the work of the words. Even if you’re saying it while smiling, it’s better to write it in that way. It could be: she said, smiling. Or maybe she was laughing, so you can just go straight to: she laughed. But more often than not, it’s better to leave the attribution simple and save the action for later.

SPEAKING OF ACTION

Sometimes we attribute when it’s not even necessary. And sometimes we over-attribute. If it’s perfectly clear who is doing the talking, save yourself the extra words and don’t attribute. What do I mean?

Superman punched Zod in the face. “How do you like them apples now? Huh, Zod?”

No said necessary when it’s coupled together on the same line. Plus you have Supes saying Zod’s name, which makes it even clearer it isn’t Zod speaking. And if it’s just the two of them in this scene, it’s even more obvious.

Let’s say you’ve been doing a back and forth between characters.

“Gee, Mr. Kent, I don’t know how to take photos,” Jimmy said.

Clark clenched his fists. “But you’re the newspaper’s photographer. That is your job isn’t it?”

Jimmy looked down at his shoes, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I just needed a job.”

Sometimes you need attribution, but when you’ve established a pattern, especially coupled with action, you can leave the attribution off. And you should.

But one more thing. Don’t do stuff like this:

“I don’t know, is red and blue too ostentatious?” Superman asked. He looked at Lois. “I mean, Batman does all black and he looks so cool,” he continued. <–You’ve attributed twice in the same sentence. We already know it’s Supes talking. No need to clutter it up with more attribution.

Or this:

“Are you kidding?” Lois stood, knocking her chair over.

“Is it too ostentacious?”

Superman looked out the window. Red and blue were his colorsβ€”his own kind of awesome.

Did the ostentatious line belong to Supes or Lois? If it’s Lois’ line, it should be a part of the same paragraph. If it’s Supes’ it should be with his paragraph. Otherwise it’s confusing. While it’s true that with more lines we might be able to infer whose line it was, but why not make it easier on your readers in the first place?

LAST THINGS

When attribution comes at the end, if it’s a pronoun, it will ALWAYS be lower case. So do this:

“Truth, justice, and the American way,” he said.

Not this:

“I’m thinking of starting a Justice League,” He explained.

*****

Okay, now hopefully we can all go forth and rid our manuscripts of attribution error. That’s one small step in editing, one giant leap toward a publishing contract!

Does wrong attribution bother you? Or are you an attribution culprit? Learn anything new? Anything I forgot that you would like to add?

*Note: Okay, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. Who knows whether or not Carl had time to beta-read. But you can bet if he did, he’d be pissed about bad attribution.

One last note. I didn’t know how I felt about Man of Steel, being highly disappointed by Superman Returns, but after I saw this trailer, my doubts faded. I can’t wait for it to come out. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town on premiere weekend (in San Fran where they charge 3 arms and 7 legs for a movie), so I’ll be a little later getting to watching it. 😦 (This trailer almost made me cry. Almost.) Let’s do ourselves a favor and keep our fingers crossed this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for.

 

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32 thoughts on “To Attribute or Not to Attribute

  1. THANK YOU! It’s like a punch in the gut when I read things like, “she smiled.” I always imagine the character mumbling through a closed-mouth smile, or talking through a grin without moving her jaw. You can’t smile words, and there’s nothing wrong with “said.”

    Have I told you about the short story I read in which the author used every possible attribution except for “said?” Drove me BONKERS. He was trying so hard to be interesting, and all I wanted to do was break his typing fingers. Just thought I’d throw that out there… *ahem*

    (and I know it’s often permissible in published work, but if you’re getting into “he grated” and “she chortled” and such on a regular basis, I’m going to be abandoning your book VERY quickly.)

    • Amen sista! The thing about said is it’s almost invisible. It’s little more than a punctuation point in literature. That’s not to say all attribution should end with said, but to avoid it, I think, is hoaky.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one driven to the point of complete insanity by wrong and awful attribution. Quit making me stumble through the story and smooth things out. That’s all I ask for from people. And attribution, at least in my mind, seems such an easy fix when compared with other editing points of a novel.

  2. Some of those examples were cringe-worthy. I do have a question about the back and forth where you leave off the attribution. Is there a size limit to that? I typically only do it when it’s one or two short lines because it always looks strange when I see a group of 4-5 sentences and nobody attached to it.

    • If it goes on for more than a couple of lines Charles, you can help by having one of the character’s say the other’s name type of thing like in the example or just a simple he said attribution.

    • I think if you take it to the extreme you have written a play and not a novel. (Although there are rare cases where a group of dialogue sentences like that unattributed works well, but it’s rare).

      If it’s a back and forth, you can ‘attribute’ by coupling the dialogue with actions and reactions. They say much of our communication is nonverbal, so if we couple the back and forth dialogue with nonverbal cues we can get away with less direct attribution. I attended a conference where an author was trying to propose that zero attribution was needed. I don’t know that I 100% agree with him, but he made good points on certainly using far, far less than we writers usually do.

      • I do a lot of the actions and reactions because of the nonverbal stuff. Not sure I agree with zero attribution though. You can change the tone of a sentence by adding ‘asked’, ‘claimed’, ‘stated’, etc.

        • His point was write it in a way so your reader can only assume it was those things without listing them. But I’m with you. Not sure I’m with him 100%

        • I guess you can do it by mentioning facial expression and voice tone. If you put those prior to the actual words then it can help a reader get the right idea. Afterwards, it could lead to the author having to re-read with the new mindset.

          Eh, there really isn’t any right and wrong way to do this. Once you think you know what shouldn’t be done, somebody figures out how to do it and hits the NYTimes bestseller list. πŸ˜€

  3. Hmm, to be honest it has never annoyed me that much if it is misused. Often it is clear. Seems overly technical without much benefit for most of it. Like rules for rules sakes.

    As for Superman I don’t know if movies can ever do him justice. In my opinion his character works better in television, simply because the interesting part of Superman is his psyche and not his powers and movies just don’t have the time to develop that. (Though I do like Zack Snyder movies and from what I have seen it seems like it might be decent).

    • Well some of the attribution is grammatically wrong and will only serve to make us look unprofessional both in the eyes of our readers and prospective agents and editors. Most editor forums I’ve been to absolutely detest these sorts of things. Plus I think the clearer we can make it read, all the better.

      I think Richard Donner’s movies did a lot FOR Superman, but as to do him justice in an overall sense, I tend to agree with you. I think Smallville did a lot of things right, but perhaps it was easier because he wasn’t really Superman yet. I’ve always appreciated Bruce Timm’s animated Superman. I thought it did a pretty decent job approaching him. I think Zack’s movie, however, will be far better than the awful monstrosity from Bryan Singer…

      • Oh, wanted to get back to this. I agree with most of it, anything to make things more clear. It’s just the fine art of the punctuation that I think kind of silly. I’ve always had problems with it and it’s why I don’t really want to be a writer. I just find it too tedious. I was surprised by reading my Cormac McCarthy novel (No Country for Old Men) I was shocked. He doesn’t use punctuation at all the funny thing is it is very readable. So… really if you can remove your punctuation and it is readable then maybe you’ve done something right.

  4. Great post here. It felt good to find out that I was doing most of the things right!

    The video at the end was a complete dream come true for me. Thanks for the share!

    • Aw, thanks. I always think it’s more interesting if you can make the examples a little wacky or absurd. Seems like our brains remember better that way.

      • I always do that when I am teaching..as for the guest post..We are crazy busy this month..but I bet we could do a guest post next month LOL I am not sure about that..but I do have LOTS of opinions ;>

        • Awesome. Let’s tentatively plan it for next month when you’re less busy. I really am interested to hear your opinion. πŸ™‚

    • Um, speaking of teaching, I do still really want to have you guest post on things you wish writers wouldn’t do as a reader. Is it something you could do this month? Or next? Just a few things you wish writers would stop doing and maybe things you really appreciate that good writers have done from a readers perspective. I think it would be fascinating, and perhaps we can start to change the literary world. πŸ˜‰

  5. When I was in middle school, my teacher gave us a list of “Other ways of saying said”, so I thought we shouldn’t say ‘said’. Then, a college professor pointed out what was written as ‘chortle,’ ‘gasp,’ and etc. was distracting, versus just saying the ‘invisible’ said. As you mention in another comment, ‘said’ is like a punctuation mark – invisible but important for clarity.
    I’ve since trained myself to:
    1. try to write around ‘said’ with action (as others have mentioned), e.g. Jane pointed at the fruit basket. “I’ll take the grapes.”
    2. Use ‘said’ when necessary, and action would be inappropriate or distracting.
    3. Write the dialogue so most characters have a distinct voice – I don’t always succeed at this
    4. Write dialogue so emotion is clear – this cuts out most, shouted, cried, or chortled issues. You don’t need “she said angrily” when the character says, “I’m going to pound your face until it looks like a slab of meat.”
    I think we know how she feels, unless she laughs and its sarcastic. Sometimes, alternatives to said are needed, but rarely.

  6. I loved your examples, and it does bother me when people do it wrong. It’s almost as bad as using the wrong “there.”

    San Francisco, huh? It’s a fun city to visit. You’ll have to let Heidi and I know when you’re there, so we can get some good hot chocolate or ice-cream from Ghiradelli square or something. πŸ˜‰

    • Heidi mentioned she was a bit of a drive away. I’d hate for it to be so inconvenient. I’d love to meet up, but only if it won’t be lots of trouble.

  7. Thanks for the great advice. I learned that dialogue attribution should stick to the basics, using only “said” and “asked.” The writing should be strong enough to imply the emotions and actions of the speaker. The dialogue should “show” smiling.

  8. Ah, attribution. I remember when I was one of the many (and now I cringe at my old ‘just for fun’ pieces with attribution all over the place. It’s ridiculous!) Ah! Seeing as I’ve just done a bracket, I have to ask about punctuation around them. (For instance, if the entire sentence is inside a bracket. Or would that just be strange?) I know people say ‘punctuatate around brackets’ (and that makes sense when the bracket is a subordinate or antithesis clause), but what about a full-sentence bracket?

    Okay, that kinda wasn’t about attribution, but this is. I generally edit them away to avoid them, but would a sentence like this be acceptable: “I wonder if,” she smiled, “it is ever acceptable.” (Okay, that was a pretty lame example, but I know you understand my drift.) Or perhaps with dashes instead of commas. The irritating thing is that Latin does it. Frequently. The language just throws in attribution anywhere mid-sentence! Talk about distracting!

    • A lot of editors said not to use brackets/parenthesis in fiction. So I’m not entirely sure. I think I do it like you do it, when it’s entirely inside, keep the punctuation inside, when it’s part of a clause, let it stay outside. (That’s my opinion anyway.) πŸ˜‰

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