How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

11 Nov
Kerry Howley's "Cold Water in Texas" portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros' attempt to fight in spite of a broken hand.

Kerry Howley’s “Cold Water in Texas” portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros’ decision to enter a bout despite having a broken hand.

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only said? Screamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

A great model for how to handle these problems can be found in Kerry Howley’s essay, “Cold Water in Texas.” The essay is an extension of her new book Thrown, about the three years she spent with a series of mixed martial arts fighters. The essay was published at Vice Magazine‘s Fightland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay begins in the locker room with MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros and a roomful of others:

a reticent black 260-pound heavyweight champion wearing a hat that says “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” his extremely gregarious black 275-pound friend Chris in the same, a chubby Hispanic coach named Mando currently absorbed in the wrapping of Charlie’s hands, and lithe, lily-white 170-pound Charlie himself.

All of these men are trying to keep the mood light before the fight begins. Imagine the challenges of writing such a scene: at least three speakers, two with the same build and clothing, plus some cornermen and officials who haven’t even been named. If you’re writing this scene, how do you keep everyone straight? Watch how Howley does it:

The joke in the room is that when Derrick, the slow-to-speak 275-pound heavyweight who will tonight successfully defend his belt, has mounted you, the best way to get out of the situation is to come onto him.

“I just pinch his butt,” says Chris. “He jump right up and say, ‘Stop with that gay shit.’”

“I lick his ear,” someone offers.

“He talk so low you can’t hear him,” someone says of Derrick.

“He don’t talk low,” says Chris. “He talk sexy.”

“That’s some Barry White shit.”

“Some of us grew up eating animal crackers. Derrick grew up eating animals with crackers.”

Chris glides about the room as he speaks. “Do a split,” someone demands, and the 275-pound superheavyweight does a to-the-ground straddle worthy of a Texas cheerleader.

“I ain’t acting too colored,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I just watched Django before I came here is all.”

Charlie is laughing so hard he is crying, wiping tears from his cheeks.

So, how does Howley handle multiple speakers? Only one of them is named: Chris. Why? Because he’s more or less directing the banter. The other speakers are lumped into the tag someone, which puts the emphasis not on the speaker but on the subject of the dialogue: Derrick.

In other words, Chris is leading a rapid-fire conversation about Derrick, and so the focus is on Chris and Derrick. Notice how Howley, as the writer, stays out of the dialogue except to clarify things. The first sentence explains what the men are talking about. There is no other description until Chris does the splits—so, the action accompanying the dialogue has been stripped down to the most interesting moment. Howley steps in again in the next line—”I ain’t acting too colored”—in order to clarify since the conversation has jumped topics. Finally, she directs our gaze to the purpose of all this banter: Charlie and his reaction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue with more than two characters using “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley as a model:

  1. Summarize the dialogue. Think about the purpose and direction of the conversation as a whole. (If it’s an extended, even story-length piece of dialogue like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” summarize a section of dialogue.) Howley’s dialogue could be summarized this way: Chris tries to distract Charlie by leading a series of rapid-fire jokes about Derrick. Notice how the summary identifies a leader, a subject, a tone, and a purpose.
  2. Set up the subject of the dialogue with summary. A general rule for writing dialogue is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. One way to do that is to identify the good stuff and summarize what the reader needs to know in order to follow the dialogue. This is exactly what Howley does when she begins the dialogue by explaining the joke in the room—the thing that everyone is laughing about. So, tell the reader who is present and what they’re talking about. Then, write the dialogue.
  3. Identify only the character leading the dialogue. It’s almost never important to identify every speaker. If the readers understand the direction of the dialogue and who’s leading it, you can simply identify the leader’s words and use they or everyone for everything else that gets said. If you’re writing an argument, you can also divide the group into factions (men and women, kids and adults, etc) and identify the statements by faction rather than by individual.
  4. Describe only the most important or interesting action. If the only thing that a speaker does is look at the other speaker, then you probably don’t need any description; most people look at the person they’re talking to. If they’re not looking (if they’re driving, on the phone), then it can be useful to describe their actions more often. Usually, though, you can use one good description to describe the action in the scene as a whole. Howley does this by describing Chris generally (“glides about the room”) and then specifically (“does a to-the-ground straddle”). Compared to that moment, what else could be worth mentioning? The answer can be found in the final line: the reaction that the speaker is trying to get. In this case, Chris is trying to get Charlie to laugh, and the essay shows us that he succeeded. In your scene, what reaction is the speaker trying to get? Does he or she succeed? Give an answer with description.
  5. Clarify to help orient the reader. Dialogue doesn’t always move in a straight line; in fact, good dialogue often doesn’t move directly from Point A to Point B. When it switches subject or tone, it’s often necessary to cue the reader to the change by giving a brief description of what has changed. Howley does this when she writes that Chris has changed subject “apropos of nothing in particular.”

Once you summarize the dialogue and understand who is driving it forward and what their aim is, you may find it easier to identify who said what and how they said it.

Good luck!

2 Responses to “How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue”

  1. plainandsimplepress March 31, 2015 at 8:02 p03 #

    Nice discussion! I’ll have to bookmark this one for my students.


  1. An Interview with Kerry Howley | Read to Write Stories - November 13, 2014

    […] To read Howley’s essay “Cold Water in Texas” and an exercise on writing dialogue, click here. […]

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