Fiction: Attributive Clauses

Don't drag your dialogue down with busy attributives. Here's why "said" is the most effective way to end a quote.
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The time has come to discuss one of the most annoying and under-discussed aspects of fiction writing. I refer to the dreaded Busy Attributive.

What, you ask, is a Busy Attributive?

Let us start with the root form: the attributive clause, otherwise known as that thing that comes after the quotation marks. The attributive clause has only one basic job: to help convey how a particular piece of dialogue has been uttered.

The problem is that writers have taken to using the attributive clause as a kind of catch-all where they can dump plot information, character sketches and authorial asides.

I can’t convey how confusing, attention seeking and ultimately bush league this tendency is. Or actually, I can. But it’s going to require some examples.

Let me start with an extreme example, or what I call the Busy Attributive Flagrante:

“You look great tonight,” cooed the skinny, hairless Dave to the woman he adored, Lucy, who was busy straightening the seam of her stocking while brushing her lithesome calf against the man she hoped to seduce, the hirsute and virile Ryan.

This is attributive abuse of the highest order. The writer has crammed so much character and plot info into this clause that it’s impossible, by the end of the sentence, to remember what it is that Dave said to Lucy.

But the whole point of including dialogue in a story is to reveal character. The spoken words, and how they’re spoken, must remain the focus. To distract the reader from this purpose is to work against your own aims.

This brings us to the Busy Attributive Cutesyiana:

“How’d you like that move?” Ryan queried, as he twirled Lucy effortlessly in his strapping arms and wriggled his eyebrows.

People often speak and act simultaneously in real life. And it’s tempting to try to reflect this in your prose. But it’s also, for the most part, a semi-pro move, because readers process sentences discretely. They tend to translate dialogue differently than action. Fusing the two together invites confusion, which is a writer’s sworn enemy. It also diminishes the impact of your prose. Consider the last example, rewritten:

Ryan twirled Lucy. “How’d you like that move?” He wriggled his eyebrows.
When the dialogue and the physical gestures are granted their own sentences, they do more work because the reader is given longer to absorb them.

Sometimes a writer can go wrong simply by choosing a bogus attributive verb. In fact, there’s an entire genus that deserves nothing less than death by blowtorch. I speak, of course, of the Busy Attributive Imprecisoids.

Or actually, I don’t speak of them. I smile of them. I shrug of them. I scowl of them. Yes, these are among the Imprecisoids in common usage.
Here’s the problem: You can’t shrug words. You can’t smile or scowl them. These are all action verbs that don’t, as such, involve the vocal cords. They’re gestures. What the writer really means, when she writes,

“I’ve seen better dancing in a cripple ward,” Dave scowled.

Is:

“I’ve seen better dancing in a cripple ward,” Dave said with a scowl.

Or, preferably:

Dave scowled. “I’ve seen better dancing in a cripple ward.”

A variation on the Imprecisoid would be the Lazoid. This would be any of a thousand verbs that tell the reader how a piece of dialogue is uttered: begged, declared, mocked, hollered, sneered and so on.

None of these is technically incorrect. But they’re still lazy writing. A good piece of dialogue should—by virtue of word choice, rhythm and syntax—convey its own tone. There’s no need to rely on a showy attributive verb.

In other words, if skinny Dave, later on that evening, gets insulted because Ryan is dancing the Lambada with Lucy and says to Ryan, “How dare you, you scurrilous cad!” it’s really not necessary to use a louder verb, such as screamed or raged or (God forbid) caterwauled. The reader already gets it. What he or she needs are sensual details, to bring the words alive in the world:

Dave stepped between Ryan and Lucy. His knees were trembling; he could smell Ryan’s cologne, a thick cloud of Brut. “How dare you, you scurrilous cad!”

It would be fair to now ask why writers insist on using Busy Attributives. It can’t just be because they’re lazy or evil or trying to hack me off. No, as with almost anything involving writing, the answer is insecurity.

Writers are afraid their stories are boring. Thus, in an effort to keep readers chugging along, they jam as much extraneous info as possible into the attributive clause. It’s the literary equivalent of those disclaimers about APR financing at the end of radio commercials.

Writers are also afraid that if they don’t use fancy verbs, they’ll be forced to use “said” over and over again. The reader will then see them as dolts unworthy of sustained attention. I hear this all the time from my undergraduate students.

But here’s a little secret, just between you, me and the rest of the reading world: “Said” is an invisible word. Readers zip right past it, like the word “I” in a first-person story. If you don’t believe me, try reading (or re-reading) Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The story is more than half dialogue. Carver must use attributive verbs more than 100 times, and all but a handful are—you guessed it—“said.”

There’s a final Busy Attributive I must note, because it’s one many pros employ. This is the use of “lie” (as in deceive). Here’s a passage I came across recently, from the novel The Male Gaze by Lucinda Rosenfeld.

Two acquaintances, Phoebe and Susan, meet at a party:

“Ohmygod, you look so great.”
“Thanks, so do you,” [Phoebe] lied. In fact, she’d never seen Susan look worse. Her skin was blotchy. It was pretty obvious she’d gained weight.

I don’t just find the use of the verb “lied” unnecessary; I find it smug. It’s as if Rosenfeld doesn’t trust us to figure out the truth for ourselves. But this, after all, is one of the great pleasures of reading. The author has put her cleverness before our sense of revelation, and forced us into an unwanted alliance with Phoebe.

I don’t mean to single out Rosenfeld, who’s a fine writer. In fact, she’s in good company. I’ve seen John Updike, Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald do the same thing.

“Said” isn’t the only attributive I ever use. I deploy an occasional “whisper” or “mutter.” But probably 95 percent of the time I stick with “said.” Or I ditch the attributive altogether, and allow a gesture to indicate the speaker:

Almond cast a withering gaze upon his readers and cleared his throat.

“Got it?”

EXERCISES:

1. Look at your most recent draft. Circle all the attributive clauses. See if they fit into any of the categories described above. If so, rewrite them.

2. A more radical version: Rewrite the story using “said” as your only attributive verb. See if you can use dialogue and/or physical gestures to convey the tone.

3. Write the longest, craziest attributive clause you can. Go crazy. Now convert that attributive clause into as many sentences as possible. Judge for yourself: Which piece of prose is easier to understand? Which has more impact?

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