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As many of you are aware, our current contest is our first foray into writing intended to have a social purpose. The Drinking Fountain, which serves as both prompt and trophy, was intended to get people to cough up some conversation about growing up in a racist society. (“There is a war between the ones who say there is a war, and the ones who there isn’t”  L. Cohen).

People have indeed cleared their throats–some coughing up, some…

But the historic purpose and the heart of the matter for this website,  has not been to stir debate, but to serve as a de-facto workshop to help each visitor improve their craft by writing to specific prompts, and getting encouragement and on-line feedback from fellow writers. In spite of the  (welcomed) turmoil provoked by our current contest, we will, in fact, get back to where we once belonged.

While I am in Prague, I have been asked to host a series of workshops for writers.  What follows is the guide I created for the second of these, and I believe that some of you will find the information of value as you work with your own manuscripts. The guide represents my first thoughts on the subject of “attribution” and it is by no means complete.  So I would appreciate it if you have thoughts relevant to the subject that you share them with the rest of us in the comment section.  Here ya go.

Class on Attribution/Breaking sentence patterns: March 29th, 2018

Attribution is the means by which you inform your reader who is speaking. This should not be considered a rote task.  How you accomplish this offers you an opportunity to be creative, with the underlying assumption that the more creative you are, the more likelihood you will achieve your ultimate goal: keep your reader turning pages.

Generally, you only physically identify the speaker if the reader would be confused about who is speaking. There is usually very little difficulty if there are only two people involved; let’s call them Jack and Jill.  There is a set up so you know who starts the conversation.

 

After three rings, Jill picked up the phone.

“Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?”

“No.  I missed the last bus.”

“That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton.”

“I have never known that to happen.”

“Pure chaos.”

“I feel sorry for the guy.”

“Actually, it was a woman.  Helen Kunderkova.”

“Oh, dear.”

“She might have been drinking.”

“I’ve heard rumors.”

“So have I.”

“Are you coming over?”

 

Because of the multiple exchanges, even though there are only two speakers, you could get confused as to who is speaking.  If you give just one reference to attribution, you have hit the reset button.  You can use your own judgment where to apply it, and whether you are going to do so in the most conventional way (he said, she said, Jack Said, Jill said, or any number of words: answered, replied, continued, etc.)  OR (preferred method, because it interjects ACTION—even a sigh is action)  you can identify the speaker in a more intriguing way.  The line “Oh dear” could be expanded.  “Oh, dear. Hang on.  You caught me just as I was coming through the door.  Let me set the groceries down.”

 

Without naming her, we know it is Jill by the set-up:  Jack has called her. Jack is not setting down groceries.

A compatible approach could be:

“Oh, dear.”  Jill switched to speaker while she set the wine in the fridge/let out the cat/turned on the fan/fireplace.

 

BONUS!  The activities that you use for attribution can further define/flesh out your character.  Jill has a cat (what kinds of people have cats?) likes wine and because it is going in the fridge it is probably white) and has turned on the fan,/fireplace maybe indicating the season?

Now, here are the same sentences, overpopulated with conventional attribution:

 

After three rings, Jill picked up the phone.

“Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?” asked Jack

“No.  I missed the last bus,”  Jill replied.

“That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton,” Jack added.

“I have never known that to happen,”  remarked Jill.

“Pure chaos.” Jack added.

“I feel sorry for the guy,” commiserated Jill.

“Actually, it was a woman.  Helen Kunderkova,”  Jack clarified.

“Oh, dear,” Jill sighed.

“She might have been drinking,”  Jack suggested.

“I’ve heard rumors,” concurred Jill.

“So have I,” Jack acknowledged

“Are you coming over?” Jill queried.

 

You can easily see how tedious this becomes.  In the sentence “Actually, it was a woman.”  We know it is Jack speaking, and we know by the action that he is clarifying.  Same thing with the sentence: “She might have been drinking.”  We know it’s Jack speaking, and we see he is suggesting.  Similar comments could be made regarding each of the sentences in this sample.

 

Now, seeming to contradict myself, there ARE at least two instances when you want to give attribution even if you know who is speaking. The first is if you want to slow down the dialog, which you might want to do if you have just delivered or are about to deliver something significant, and you want the thought to linger a moment with your reader before you continue. Expanding our dialog with Jack and Jill and assuming there has been minimal direct attribution up to this point:

 

     “So have I.”

     Jill hesitated before switching off speaker, and bringing the phone to her ear.  “Are you coming over?”

 

There is some trepidation on her part. (as implied by switching off speaker and being physically more intimate with the phone) It’s your story.  Why is she hesitant?  Is she afraid he will say no?  Why?  Is she afraid he will say yes? Why?  You are setting up conflict, which drives every story.  And you are suggesting there are secrets—always good to have and keep as long as possible.

 

The second reason you  might want to give attribution where technically none is needed is to convey emotion, if the emotion is not already clear by the setting or action of the scene.

 

“Are you coming over?” she said/angrily, seductively, annoyingly, softly/ curiously.

But try giving the same information without “she said/asked/pleaded.”

 

“Are you coming over?” What was the date of my last period?/  Of course he’s coming over, that freeloader. Can’t pass up a free meal/ She grit her teeth, certain the answer would disappoint her,  (by the way—someone’s thoughts are always put in italics, never in quotation marks.

 

The best writing, of course, identifies who is speaking without any attribution at all!  The voice (literal and metaphorical) of each character is so distinct from others that we know who is speaking. One is college educated, speaks in full sentences, grammar always correct, sentences often compound.  Another character is a street waif, short incomplete sentences.  The  military guy likes monosyllabic, straight to the point sentences, declarative sentences, and frequently uses the word “Outstanding.”  The tall-dark-and-handsome uses very few words (he doesn’t need to!). Somebody has a stammer, another a lisp, another a Southern accent. The narcissist has frequent references to himself. One coughs.  Multiple hints to give attribution without being direct.

 

Now, one more thing about attribution: mix it up where it appears in the dialog.  In this example, we don’t need attribution at all, but in sentences of your own where it may be required, apply this as a possibility:

 

Example  One

 

“Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?” asked Jack

“No.  I missed the last bus,” Jill replied.

“That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton,” Jack added.

 

Example Two

 

“Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?” asked Jack

Jill replied. “No.  I missed the last bus,”

“That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton,” Jack added.

 

Example Three

 

Jack asked, “Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?”

“No.  I missed the last bus,” Jill replied.

Jack added, “That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton.”

 

Example Four

“Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?”

“No.  I missed the last bus,” Jill replied.

“That’s a pity.  The conductor dropped the baton.”

 

I’m sure you get the idea.  If you can avoid syntactical patterns, you will create a more spontaneous read. Remember the great paradox: write something a hundred times until it appears to be spontaneous!

 

The one fallback word to use for attribution, if you must?  SAID.  It is direct, doesn’t distract from the conversation or leave you interpreting motives so you can focus on the action and dialog.

 

“And these are the thoughts that come to mind when I think about attribution,” I said.

***

I have a standard offer:  I will read up to 30 pages of a completed manuscript or a work in progress and give you my professional overview without charge. Send it to me as a word attachment with pro bono in the subject line to thorn@awordwithyoupress.com.  Please include a synopsis of not more than 30 words telling me what your story is about. If you can do it just 30 words, I know you are focused and on the something!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Avatar
    Sarah Crysl Akhtar says:

    After three rings, Jill picked up the phone.
    “Hey, it’s me. Did you make it to the concert?”
    [She winced.] “No. I missed the last bus.”
    “That’s a pity. The conductor dropped the baton.”
    “I have never known that to happen.”
    “Pure chaos.”
    “I feel sorry for the guy.”
    “Actually, it was a woman. Helen Kunderkova.” [His voice was smug.]
    “Oh, dear.”
    “She might have been drinking.”
    “I’ve heard rumors.”
    “So have I.”
    “Are you coming over?”

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