Writing Advice – Dialog Attribution

You’ve probably heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.” I’d like to show you why I think this is good writing advice when you’re writing dialog.

Here are a few sample sentences written solely for this post.

“Not again,” she sighed.

“My best friend forever doesn’t want to talk to me anymore, and I’m completely and absolutely heartbroken,” she sighed.

“That’s hilarious!” he laughed.

“I can’t believe you bought me a new TV after all these years of saying TV was bad for me,” he laughed.

“I’m so happy to see you,” I smiled.

“I understand,” I nodded.

“I disagree,” I disagreed.

Now, try to act out these sentences. Can you sigh, laugh, smile, nod, and disagree them out loud? Do they sound natural?

“Thahahat’s hihilahariouhous!” he laughed.

“I ca-han’t be-hee-hee-lie-hieve you-hou bough-hought me-hee-hee a tee-hee-vee-hee-hee ahh-hafter all-hall thee-hee-heese yee-hears o’ say-haying tee-hee-vee-hee-hee was ba-had for me,” he laughed.

I suppose you could have a character laugh a sentence like tha-hahahaha-hat, but then you don’t need to say that he’s laughing; it’s already there.

I don’t know about you, but I had a really hard time nodding anything except “yes.” I also found it physically impossible to smile what I wanted to say.

I think that what people really mean when they write things like that is that the character is nodding or smiling before, during, or after speaking. The problem is how it’s being written. You could certainly go with these.

“I understand,” I said and nodded.

I nodded and said, “I understand.”

“I’m so happy to see you,” I said. You don’t need to include the fact that you’re smiling; it’s built into the phrase “I’m so happy.” You only need to include it if it’s at odds with what your character is saying.

I frowned and said, “I’m so happy to see you.”

As for sighing and laughing, you can definitely do that with one or two words, but it gets harder to believe the longer your sentence is. I think it should also be limited to a few instances in your story to keep things more realistic and less repetitive.

If you want people in your stories to sigh and laugh, they can do so, just like they can nod.

He laughed and said, “That’s hilarious!”

“Ha! That’s hilarious!”

Reader sighed and said, “I hate writing advice. I’m going home.”

“Please, stay just a little longer,” Hyacinth said. “We haven’t talked about the verb ‘to disagree.’ When your character says, ‘I disagree’ in the dialog, you don’t need to add that verb into the attribution. You can use the verb ‘to say,’ or if it’s clear who’s speaking, you don’t even need an attribution.”

Are you interested in more writing advice topics? If so, please leave a comment.

Are there times when “show, don’t tell” causes you headaches? I’d love to hear about your writing experiences.



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