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Writing: Who Said What? [Jan. 29th, 2009|10:28 am]
e_moon60
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[Current Mood |awake]

Discussion elsewhere on the web suggested this topic as a way to avoid work this morning.  Until the ice has melted off the pond and I feel like going outside, anyway.

The question came up about extended conversations--when and how to use attribution tags without being boring. We've all experienced conversations in books that were confusing...a long vertical string of short utterances, and somewhere down the page the reader's having to count back up to find out whether it was Bill or Sam who said "But that's ridiculous."   We've also read conversations in which the attribution tags stuck out as if spray-painted in fluourescent orange--they weren't needed, and they made the passage read like something written for a 5th grade class.

So what are other ways to keep readers oriented to the speakers--to know who's saying what--without a constant downpour of "he said, she said, Bill said, Suzy said...?"  

Here goes.

First,  consider the context of the conversation: where the characters are, what they're doing, what the emotional state of the characters is, and what the conversation must accomplish in terms of plot, character revelation, character development, and mood.   Yes, a conversation should accomplish more than one thing, and attribution tags (like every other element) contribute to those goals. 

Then, think about the behaviors that go along with the conversation (think about conversations you've been in.)  Communication is far more than the words spoken--it includes how the words are spoken (rate of speech, volume, tone of voice, pitch changes, emphasis, etc.) and the physical behaviors that go with the emotion your character is feeling.   Conversations are most interesting and productive (in a fictional sense) when the characters are not feeling the same emotion, thinking the same direction.    Those different emotions allow you to use actions as attributions.

For instance:  Bill and Gary are talking:  Bill's kids ran through Gary's yard and made a mess out of a freshly planted flower bed.  Gary is angry ; Bill is defensive.   When the conversation starts, the first utterance of each needs to be tagged with their names: Gary said, Bill said.   After that, though, variation of  attribution tags using names, with names used in describing actions and pronoun attribution tags--or even no tag--will keep readers oriented.   

"It's people like you letting your kids run wild and make messes that are ruining this neighborhood," Gary said.

"My kids aren't running wild," Bill said.  "But if you don't want kids on your lawn, put up a fence."

Gary tightened his grip on the shovel.  "You know the Homeowner's Association doesn't allow fenced front yards!  That's why you need to teach your kids to respect property!" 

Bill stepped back.  "Are you threatening me?  Or my children?  Because --"  He looked at his twins, now cowering against the bushes by the door.  "Because I can call the cops on you if you pick up that shovel," he said.  

"All I'm saying is you need to keep your kids in your own yard and not let them ruin other peoples' property."

"They're just children."  Bill spread his hands.  "And it was just a flowerbed.  I said I was sorry; they said they were sorry.  You don't have to come raging out here with a damn shovel..."  He looked back at the twins,  just in time to catch  them making a rude gesture.  "Go in the house, boys!"

"I saw that," Gary said.  "That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about--they have no respect for me, or my property, and you--"  he pointed a finger at Bill.  "You're going to be bailing them out of jail someday if you don't take responsibility and teach them a lesson."  He turned away then looked back.  "And you owe me $27.85 for those flowers they trampled.  I have the receipt from the garden center."  

This hastily written passage has seven utterances,  four by Gary and three by Bill.  Two of Gary's carry ordinary name-said attribution tags.  One has an activity attribution, and one has no attribution.   Of Bill's , one has a name-said attribution tag, one has a pronoun attribution tag (and an activity attribution), and one has only an activity attribution.   Behavior attributions add information about the setting, the emotional and behavioral situation, and thus more information about the characters (and where the plot might be going) than the words spoken can do, while at the same time allowing reader-cues to the speaker in more subtle ways.

Thoughts are also behaviors, so internal-thought gives another reason to cue the reader to speaker identity.  Here are Shari, an avid runner, and Crystal,  a co-worker who prefers to watch sports, not participate. 

"I have tickets for the Hawks game," Crystal said.  "Want to come?  

"I have to train," Shari said.  One week until the Cobalt 10K.  This year, she might have a chance at the top ten.

"At night?"

"Early in the morning.   Sorry, Crys" 

"I don't know why you do it--it's not like you're fat or anything."

"I like running."   Away from people like this, with their couch-potato attitudes, their doughy skin, their slack muscles.

"I don't.  They made us run laps in school and I hated it."  She paused.  "I guess you were one of those natural athletes, huh?"

"I  guess."  Natural?   It wasn't native talent that had put ribbons and trophies on her wall, but plain old hard work, getting up every morning to run whether she felt like it or not.  But natural, yes, to love the feeling of strength, the easy slide of muscle on muscle.

In another hastily-written passage, only one of Crystal's four utterances is tagged, because Shari's thoughts clearly identify one of the two characters speaking...the reader can tell when it's Shari (and thus when it's Crystal.)    Only Shari would relate everything to her running...once you've established that Shari's a runner and Crystal isn't, that one point identifies Shari (and, in negative, Crystal.)

This is an extreme; I prefer to tag (by behavior, thought, pronoun, or name) both characters, though not in every utterance.  Leaving one with no attributions at all makes them a passive voice-box reciting lines.  This would be much livelier if we had Crystal's physical reactions (at least) to what Shari says:

"I have tickets for the Hawks game," Crystal said.  "Want to come?  

"I have to train," Shari said.  One week until the Cobalt 10K.  This year, she might have a chance at the top ten.

"At night?"  Crystal's eyes widened.

"Early in the morning.   Sorry, Crys" 

"I don't know why you do it--it's not like you're fat or anything."  Crystal looked down, smoothing the front of her dress over her own stomach, brushing an imaginary speck off her jacket.

"I like running."   Away from people like this, with their couch-potato attitudes, their doughy skin, their slack muscles.

"I don't.  They made us run laps in school and I hated it."  She paused, brow furrowed.  "I guess you were one of those natural athletes, huh?"

"I  guess."  Natural?   It wasn't native talent that had put ribbons and trophies on her wall, but plain old hard work, getting up every morning to run whether she felt like it or not.  But natural, yes, to love the feeling of strength, the easy slide of muscle on muscle.

With just a few behaviors, Crystal becomes more than a voice.

Note  that thought-behavior attribution is suitable only for point-of-view characters seen from the inside.  We can't have Crystals thoughts while in Shari's interior POV...unless we opt for "omniscient" point of view, a choice with its own consequences for reader/character bonding.

Changing the attribution mode can change a scene (in a good or a bad way) so it's worth playing around with written conversations to see what works best for a given scene/story/book.   Keep in mind that conversations always involve external behaviors and thoughts--often arising out of emotions generated by the other person's words and behaviors--so there are many possibilities for enriching a reader's understanding (and entertaining them, as well.)





 


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