Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

When To Use Speaker Attributes

Bottom line, I use speakers attributes (e.g., he said, she said) as little as possible.

Some writers argue that readers skip right over “he said,” so why worry about using it? It informs us who is speaking, and other than that, readers just don’t notice it. My response? Would you rather use a technique whose sole raison d’etre is to inform, and otherwise adds nothing to the dialogue, or would you rather use one that heightens the passion of the scene?

Sure, SAs are needed from time to time to tell us who’s talking. Said is Old Reliable when it comes to speaker attributes (SAs). Many authors advocate using said and eschewing other descriptive words such as screamed, whispered, etc. More on that opinion later.

I’ll be honest, using as few SAs as possible will make writing harder. Your writing will slow down. It’s much easier to stick in a “he said” than to create an effective alternative that enhances the scene.

Here are my choices for informing the reader of who’s talking.

1. Add nothing. Just let the dialogue speak for itself.
2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.
3. Add an SA when neither #1 nor #2 works best.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

1. Add nothing.

The purest form of dialogue is only dialogue, written so spot-on that it emotes all by itself.

Many times when an SA is used, it’s not needed at all. “Stop it right now!” he shouted. Why tell the reader he shouted when the exclamation point makes that clear? You’ve just explained what the dialogue indicates by its own merit. The phrase he shouted just adds extra words. And if you hear me on nothing else, hear me on this: extra words ruin sentence rhythm and weight the action. Get rid of extra words whenever you can.

Okay, you might argue, so don’t add he shouted. But why not add he said? Well, that’s a problem. Because he didn’t just say it. He shouted it. Said denotes little to no emotion. When you write dialogue that emits emotion only to follow it with an emotionless SA, you’ve just diminished the effectiveness of the line.

So, how many dialogue lines should you write with no reminder of any kind as to who’s talking? Depends on the conversation. If it consists of short, punchy sentences, you can have more lines of pure dialogue than if people are speaking in multiple sentences. You certainly don’t want the reader to have to stop and count lines to remind themselves who is speaking, so don’t err on the side of confusion. Which brings us to . . .

2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.

An action beat is a movement of some kind.

A descriptive beat describes such things as the speaker’s displayed attitude, facial expression, the appearance of some other part of his body, or his vocal inflection.

A thought beat is something the speaker is thinking or perceiving about the other person. (Be careful that you’re in this person’s POV for the entire scene.)

Technique #2 is a great choice for heightening the emotion of the scene. It helps the reader feel what’s going on instead of just reading it. Problem is you can’t use an action beat for every line of dialogue, because it’ll sound repetitive. This becomes a problem of rhythm. When I write, rhythm is never far from my mind. So, how to break the repetition of too many beats? Go back to #1—add nothing. Then return to adding a beat. Or two. One way to make beats less repetitive is to vary where they’re placed in the line of dialogue. Put a beat before the dialogue. Put the next beat after the first line of dialogue. You’ll also want to vary what kind of beats you use.

3. Add an SA when neither #1 nor #2 works best.

Even so, on occasion bouncing between #1 to #2 isn’t going to work for the sake of rhythm. This is going to happen more often when you have a group of three or more people speaking. Whenever I face this point, I add an SA. But it really is my last resort. Sometimes when I add an SA, I do use a descriptive one—he whispered, etc—if it’s the most effective. But not often.

By saving SAs as the last resort, we force ourselves away from lazy writing. Instead of the quick informative phrase, search for the most emotive pure dialogue or beat as a way to deepen the scene.