Tuesday, January 27, 2009

According to

attribution--identification of who is saying, thinking, feeling something relevant to the story at hand; also a quality possessed by an animal, a person, place, or thing in a story; most common use, a direct distinction of who is saying what, perhaps even with the adverb or adverbial clause attachment of how the thing being said was spoken.

Even at the risk of repetition, the identity of the speaker or performer is uppermost, beginning with the reader knowing for a certainty who the narrator of a given scene is and at all times who the speaker is, who the listener is, who the one who acts is, who the one being acted upon is. This important standard prevents such awkward, difficult-to-unravel locutions as "She knew she would go with her no matter what she did or when she did it because it was her basic instinct to help her whenever she felt she needed help." The reader is literally so grateful as to forgive repetition of names, although this gratefulness does not extend across the board to careless, unintended repetitions, which do nothing but make the reader cringe (if the offense gets past the editor in the first place).

In the matter of attribution in dialogue, the verb "said" has demonstrated over a long history its neutrality, thus Jim said, John said, Fred said will not raise any reader hackles that might have been raised if Jim said but John remonstrated, and Fred averred. Thus do not keep at hand a list of synonyms for said, particularly avoiding expostulated, admonished, and uttered. Verbs that convey feeling are welcome in all other places than synonyms for said, accordingly do not let characters bark or growl; ululate is also a no-no, the main reason being that the word may appear to be an authorial judgment rather than from a character.

Unless the string of dialogue between two characters goes on for some time, it is not necessary to continue with the "said." If there are more than two characters on stage, the writer might consider burying the "said" in mid action or mid sentence: "This is not going to work," Fred said, standing, stretching. "We need another approach." In such scenarios, the writer will do well to pick a dramatic (suspense producing) place to break up the sentence. "This," Fred said, standing and stretching, "is not going to work. We need--" he looked about him as though tracking a fly unseen by the others, "--another approach." Yet another way to tack an attribution to a line of dialogue is with a sentence immediately following that contains action. "This is not going to work." Fred stood, spotted a roving waiter, and motioned him over to them.

formula--a recipe or pattern for a story; a means of linking reader expectations with a plausible outcome; a narrative device for producing accelerated risk and subsequent resolution.

Some examples of formula in story:

1. A sympathetic character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.

2. Sin, suffer, and repent.

3. Something happens and someone changes.

4. A journey and/or quest that produce unexpected results.

Often conflated with plot, formula is theme based, frequently traceable from culture to culture throughout human history, thus Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces but also the trickster, recurring in such diverse cultures as Native American and in the persona of Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx). Other widespread themes: Man against Nature, Man against machinery, Man against convention. The operating factor in formula is predictability; if you add element A, the reader will expect element B as a consequence, thus formula makes the reader vulnerable to the possibility of surprise.

A narrative spoken of as formulaic is likely to be predictable, suggesting the need somewhere in the process for the writer and characters to collude against the expectations of the reader; narratives that are considered non-formulaic are often those that end with a resolving force that veers sharply from expectations, as in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.


Matt said...

We were drilled the "three conflicts" throughout high school and college (man v. man, man v. nature, man v. himself - plus the apocryphal fourth, man v. society). I thank my friend Roy, who, during a test added "Man vs. Pirates" to the canon, though it tends to tip its hat more to Hollywood than literature.

Matt said...

Almost forgot: the "said" thing can drive me nuts, as in reaching for the thesaurus to find a synonym...yet, you are right. Nearly anything aside from "said" (with the exception of "yelled") sounds tacked-on or editorializing-on-behalf-of-the-invisible-narrator.

The nuts and bolts of writing dialogue (particularly in a novel) is like listening to a ping-pong game where you wish the ball wouldn't always hit the table, but rather bounce between the opponents' paddles. "Said" is such a table.

lowenkopf said...

Well said, Matt, no pun intended.

Querulous Squirrel said...

This is so wise as usual. The her/she sentence is hilarious, as are the synonyms for said that are so distracting the reader forgets what the speaker was saying. Oh, and of course you intended the pun.