The use of the verb ‘say’ is much debated. The author’s dilemma goes something like this:

‘I am a writer and I don’t want to “overwrite” (use too many/too fancy words for their own sake).  On the other hand I don’t want to sound monotonous, and neither do I want to be under-descriptive. How often and where should I use “said,” and where should I get creative and descriptive?’

Before we answer, here’s a great, big list of synonyms for ‘say’ (I stopped at 200 words, but it could go on and on):

Speech verbs 1

Speech verbs 2

 (For a cut-and-paste-able version of my list, click  here)

Now that I’ve given you the list, here’s the trick answer to the dilemma—as much as possible, we want to avoid using any of these verbs when describing direct speech. For most cases, “said” and “asked” are as descriptive as we should get, and if we can infer who’s speaking we avoid even those. Why? Because highly descriptive verbs connected to speech are distracting. Look at this example:

Vernon turned the watch over in his hands. ‘It’s not exactly what I asked for.’
‘I knew you’d hate it.’
With a deflated sigh, Barb turned from the counter and busied herself with returning the polystyrene chips to the box, while Vernon’s gaze flitted undecidedly between her and the gift.

By making the speaker the preceding or following actor, performing an action that relates to what’s said, the reader knows instantly from the context who’s speaking. This is the ideal we should strive towards.
Consider this as an alternative:

‘I hate it!’ he complained.
‘You hate everything,’ she judged in return.

Hopefully, like me, you’re wincing reading those lines. The error of this type of writing is that the writer seeks to spoonfeed the reader, she wants to hammer home what’s happening, as if repeating information strengthens the feeling (it actually weakens it).

But where did the writer repeat information? Ask yourself this: when is I hate it! not a complaint? When is you hate everything not a judgement? Never, that’s when. Let the reader infer what he will from a conversation, like he does in real life. Your writing will be stronger for it.

Of course, there are times when putting in a certain alternative speech verb is correct. Usually, this is when the verb conveys essential information about the physical tone or pitch of what is said—where using “said” itself would be misleading.

‘Something’s holding my hand,’ she whispered into the darkness, hoping it would be a friendly voice that responded.

Whispered, cried, murmured, bellowed, mumbled etc. are acceptable alternatives when called for. Ask yourself as a writer if the context calls for such a word, and be sure to use them sparsely.

So can we ever use highly descriptive speech verbs, the animalistic ones for example? Honestly, extreme caution is advised. Remember such verbs are quite fruity judgements of how a character speaks. If you ever feel one is necessary, try to separate it where possible in a distinct sentence—

‘Take this away and bring me the soup I ordered,’ he yapped.

—should mostly be avoided. Instead, if yapping is vital to your scene:

He yapped at the waiter, yapped at him like one of those short-legged dogs whose heads you’d secretly like to stove in.
‘Take this away and bring me the soup I ordered.’

By framing the verb in the narrative description we validate the tonal judgement surrounding it. In the first sentence the judgement is coarse, undercooked, coming from the narrator abruptly and unnaturally (a good exercise is imagining an oral narrator recounting a story this way. In the first example, the narrator sounds like he’s dropping in a judgement snidely. Even if your narrator is snide, let the reader into that world, like in the second example).

Which leads me on to the final point about these verbs: the majority of them are better used in narrative description rather than framing direct speech. We can talk about characters complaining for days, describe how the boss’s subordinate parrots everything the boss says, inform the reader that the teacher upbraided the students after lunch. But for the most part, we only do so if we don’t also offer the direct speech concerning these conversations or monologues. For clarity, we use ‘he said, she said,’  —these are the least intrusive verbs. And at best we use nothing at all, leaving the reader to glean their own tones and context from our work.


5 thoughts on “Effectively using speech verbs in Fiction

  1. Pingback: Dire Covenants: a conspiracy in the suburbs | MurderMayhem&More

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