491 Words to use Instead of Said. Sorted and Ranked.

Dialogue attribution pins a quote to a character. The most common, and best word, to use is said. With said, in the ranked list below, are an additional 491 words to use.

All you need to know is: Said, Asked, Replied, Yelled, Whispered.

With Said being the king of dialogue attribution.

I’m obsessed with verbs. Years ago I loved abusing verbs to carry dialogue.

No longer!

Here are 492 verbs you need in tiered ranks. The three columns are manner, rhetoric, and emotion.

  • Manner is how the dialogue sounds.
  • Rhetoric indicates the function of the dialogue in conversation.
  • Emotion has verbs that describe the character emotions.

God Tier — Use 90% of the time.

MannerRhetoricEmotion
SaidAsked
Use Said way more than Asked.

Great Tier — Use 7% of the time.

MannerRhetoricEmotion
WhisperedRepliedCried
ShoutedAddedJeered
MutteredBeganBlurted
SangExplained

Fine Tier — Use 2% of the time.

MannerRhetoricEmotion
YelledBossedScreamed
CalledRecitedJoked
PuledLiedWailed
SlurredQueriedBawled
MimickedToldScolded
SquealedRemarkedVowed
HolleredArguedImplored
PrattledInterruptedCajoled
SplutteredTriedBegged
MumbledRequestedFumed
LispedAssentedTaunted
MewedAcceptedRetorted
RoaredReadRanted
CackledQuotedRaged
ChantedReckonedInsisted
StammeredRecountedSassed
BanteredRemindedCoaxed
BoomedOpinedDenied
CroakedCoachedExulted
BarkedExpressedBewailed
HissedGuessedGushed
HuffedDivulgedWhined (Whinged)
SqueakedAdmittedSobbed
BitConfidedSnapped
SpatDisclosedBlasted
YelpedDictatedWept
ShriekedRespondedUpbraided
DrawledInsistedPled
HowledNotifiedEntreated
GrowledPressedSniveled
GroanedMentionedTeased
PipedInstructedGagged
ScreechedDescribedThreatened
ShrilledDemurredWarned
ThunderedPuzzledScoffed
BabbledReportedChided
PurredSurmisedBickered
HummedNotedBoasted
EchoedRejoinedLaughed
PantedObjectedUrged
HeavedAdvisedCussed
LeeredHintedCursed
IntonedProposedChallenged
PeepedRecalledPrayed
QuippedWheedledPleaded
MoanedToastedGrumbled
BlubberedCommandedTempted
ChattedInquiredDared
ChatteredWonderedSwooned
RaspedInformedMocked
TrilledDeclaredShot
StutteredSpokeCooed
PromptedWhimpered
SuggestedCautioned
ClaimedGibed
Pointed outMarveled
ReassuredWhooped
ReasonedPraised
CounteredRejoiced
AppealedRidiculed
WishedMused
Went onChimed
ContinuedProtested
RipostedRibbed
CorrectedBurst
CommentedAttested
ClarifiedCrowed
CounseledFlattered
RidiculedProfessed
Concurred
Disputed
Provoked

(Barely) OK Tier — Use 1% of the time.

MannerRhetoricEmotion
YowledQuestionedCountermanded
ChokedAnsweredApologized
RumbledLecturedConfessed
QuakedObservedGriped
SniffedConfirmedSnobbed
Spelled (Out)AllowedSimpered
EnunciatedBetJested
GaspedRememberedFlirted
MurmuredVolunteeredExaggerated
ChewedWelcomedSnarled
WheezedAllegedSwore
YawnedTestedBeseeched
LiltedWent onExploded
GurgledAdvertisedOrdered
ArticulatedAddressedStormed
ExclaimedEstimatedDenounced
TwitteredExactedCondemned
UtteredPostulatedBadgered
ProclaimedIntimatedOogled
BellowedImportunedEgged on
SibilatedBroadcastedAssured
StatedCertifiedKeened
JoshedDeliveredScrutinized
GuffawedDenotedMarvelled
GiggledDisruptedWooed
ChortledDisseminatedLamented
AnnouncedDistributedDemanded
BreathedIndicatedReflected
GruntedPremisedCrapped
SighedPresentedTrailed
BlatheredPresupposedEmpathized
IntonatedGreetedContemplated
CaterwauledProbedContended
QuaveredProfferedGrimaced
PronouncedPromulgatedSmirked
ChitteredPublicizedGrinned
CoughedReleasedSmiled
CluckedReprimandedNodded
FalteredSearchedScowled
YakkedSharedCringed
YappedSoughtCowered
RambledSpecifiedBeamed
JabberedVouchedComplemented
NatteredTransferredCongratulated
Rattled onTransmittedCheered
Harped onSanctionedApproved
Nattered onVenturedWorried
DribbledOfferedVacillated
BurbledQuizzedSeethed
ChirpedPut inAvowed
ChirrupedThought out loudAsserted
ChuckledImpliedMourned
DeadpannedMotionedGloated
BleatedImpartedTattled
ElocutedConversedFretted
BandiedContributedComplained
WarbledSpeculatedEncouraged
BlusteredHypothesizedChastised
SneezedMaintainedBragged
SnortedAbnegatedNeedled
VoicedDefendedProdded
MouthedAffirmedRetaliated
SputteredTheorizedGroused
SniffledTestifiedForgave
ChorusedRestatedBubbled
GawpedPonderedShuddered
PepperedNoddedAccused
EffusedAcquiescedRefused
StressedFinishedAvered
NaggedPromisedAgonized
ImitatedRevealedAffirmed
SnickeredRepeatedComforted
StartedThanked
PersistedReckoned
AgreedCarped
DisagreedShivered
ConcludedInsulted
DecidedGoaded
InterjectedPestered
DebatedGrieved
DirectedConsoled
Verified
Reminisced
Insinuated
Deliberated
Related
Deflected
Conceded
Reiterated

Worst Tier — Don’t use.

MannerRhetoricEmotion
StumbledEndedSneered
ResoundedAlliteratedSulked
RhymedThought (Yes, I found this recommended.)Undertook
TrembledCensuredShrugged
GulpedHeldForetold
DrippedNecessitatedDoubted
OozedPointedTormented
HesitatedPublishedGrizzled
MonotonedRequiredRemonstrated
VociferatedRequisitionedSympathized
EmphasizedCommunicatedExasperated
AcknowledgedInclined
ConvincedDisposed
NegatedSpilled
Assessed
Considered

Some reflections on using this list

  1. Overall, Manner is better than Emotion which is better than Rhetoric.
  2. Less is more. Dialogue attribution should be used when the speaker is unclear, there is a change in dynamic, and there is irony between what is said and how.
  3. Don’t you dare use a verb that isn’t on this list, the worst tier is bad enough as it is. I don’t want to go about adding more because you want to use the adjective grizzled as a attribution verb. DEAR GOD. If you can’t find a verb that isn’t on this list and someone, anyone recommended you to use it, they are wrong.
  4. All the verbs I have found in the wild or were recommended on internet lists. The absurdity of many verbs are the fault of click-baity writers. None of the verbs in Worst Tier are bad. They must not be used for dialogue attribution. They are better literally anywhere else. The fact some yahoos recommend those words grinds my gears.
  5. Within reason, each word could easily fit into two or three columns. This is a principled rank and order. With all creative pursuits you got to do your own thing. Trust your own voice. =))

The reason why such garbage words are recommended online is because finding a new verb for dialogue attribution is a middle school assignment. The point of the assignment is to learn new words. Not write good prose. Other reasons include building a large list to seem smart.

When in doubt use said. Whoever said use something else instead of said should be dead.

That’s all.

Photo Credit: John Evjen

Don’t control what the reader thinks: You’ll only annoy them and exhaust yourself

Language is abstract, accept this limitation. You are only able to do the first half of communication, let go of the second half.

Every time I write something, especially writing advice, I am overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. Every sentence demands elaboration. Every concept bears millions of nuances. Too many choices.

Too many choices = paralysis.

Just to write one sentence on psychology my idiot brain wants to get a quadruple PHD to justify my position.

Write instead what you know. If you survived childhood, you have enough material for two lifetimes.

But that doesn’t help either. Will people get your work? No one can say. Instead, lets see your writing as a whole.

Reality assaults your senses. You rationalize your experience. And then you write it down in fiction (or non-fiction) Three stages. At each stage reality is watered down until its purely abstract–merely language!

Stop underestimating your reader.

They control the reading part. In the same way you hurt yourself trying to control what other people think of you, let your readers read. You already know what you make is something broken. All puzzles are broken. Whether they know it or not, readers masterfully reconstruct these language puzzles. They will recreate the reality you first imagined (or witnessed in the case of non-fiction).

Let your readers read. That statement precludes you have written something. Go write.

That’s all.

Style Guides are Useless

Don’t waste your time on Elements of Style despite it having some of the best writing advice available.

I bought the book and originally I liked it. But when I started going down the rabbit hole of what creates clarity in writing, everything that was effective relies on focus and memory. Not rote memorization of style laws.

I want to write more on this later but I will leave you with a piece of criticism for almost all style books available.

Write with Passive Voice

Passive Voice allows the audience to focus on what’s important to them.

When I first got the advice to only write in active voice I became a zealot for the cause. It was an action that immediately made my writing better. It’s too bad that advice is wrong. There is more nuance to writing.

The passive voice allows an inactive subject to be the center of attention. Let’s take two subjects, a book and a man. Let’s assume you are more interested in the book than the man. Perhaps the book is a Grimoire that raises the dead and the man is just an incidental character.

If I wrote, ‘The man stole the book.’ You would have to flip the sentence in your mind to get the information you actually want. That being, what happened to the book. This information connects it to the larger world.

However if I wrote, ‘The book was stolen by the man.’ You don’t have to flip the sentence to get what you want from it.

Since people are more interested in people who are active (A short meditation on celebrity should make that obvious) the active voice is natural. It provides the obvious choice to make your prose better, since the audience will be naturally interested in what the actor is doing.

How Should You Use This Advice?

During writing, stop worrying about writing in passive voice. It might be better than the active voice. There is no reason to beat yourself up over how you write, it is the first pass of what you are thinking about.

Editing is when you should worry about readers focus. If you don’t know what the reader is interested in, there is little chance you can write a book that they will read let alone a single paragraph.

Every time you write for others you must know who the readers are and what do they want. Readers don’t care about the convention of style, they care about story.

What Is The Good Advice From Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.?

Omit needless words.

There is some other good tips as well but that one stands head and shoulders above the rest.

That is all.

Replace ‘But in fact’ with However

The phrase ‘But in fact’ is wordy and sounds awful. The word ‘however’ is classy and sounds cool.

If you go through and replace all instances of ‘But in fact’ with however, (Except where it aids a character sounding dopey) your writing will enjoy being more precise and easier to read.

I can’t stand the sound of but in fact. Say it once or twice. Doesn’t it sound awful? I recommend removing it from your vocabulary entirely.

That is all.

7 More Useful Verbs

While I edited Jacob’s Quest I removed weak and repetitive verbs with new ones.

All of the examples are from the wild. They aren’t made up, I found them in my writing and corrected them.

seem, appear, look, sense, feel, overcome, overwhelm, have happened, occured, was, felt, think, ponder, erupt, pause, laugh, and crack.

Remove Weak Verbs

Some verbs I wrote couldn’t pull the sentence together. Here are a few I noticed.

Dressed

Saying a character was clothed is passive. Clothed is a strange verb, even used actively, it sounds peculiar. Blue robes clothed him.

This example has the added benefit of removing repetition of ‘cloth’. (In clothed to clothes)

He was clothed simply but his clothes…He dressed simply but his clothes…

Dressed is an excellent verb. It puts the character in the drivers seat of how they present themselves. The character makes choices to solve problems, including the choice of how to dress.

Felt

I do not mind directly stating the character’s emotions. Writing ‘He was sad.’ is far better than being needlessly poetic.

With watery eyes, he slumped.

Blah blah blah. Get to the point. Now, you might say this is wrong, and cite Show don’t tell as a defense.

Have you considered what you want to show?

You want to show a character rising to the occasion and solving his inner turmoil and outer conflict. Sometimes this requires telling the reader he is sad. It is efficient.

You don’t want to show is confusing prose and constant digression. If required, be direct.

What isn’t required is using ‘was‘ all the time.

“You see I love these mountains too,” the giant said after he was comfortable…“You see I love these mountains too,” the giant said after he felt comfortable…

Along with being a verb that describes action (Feeling something), to feel is an emotional verb. Beyond directly describing emotions, it can be used abstractly as well.

The princess felt silly she has took so long.

It works because when you are happy, you feel happy. Like with dressed, feeling puts the character in the spotlight again. They feel emotions. If the reader emphasizes with them, the reader will feel the emotions as well.

Seem

‘Quibblespek looked fazed’, or ‘seemed fazed’?

‘Seem’ is a linking verb, like ‘to be’ (is, was). Linking verbs don’t describe the action of the subject, just their state. Seem acts like a state-of-being verb. This is nothing to be afraid of. Having verbs that act as linking verbs focuses the prose.

In my first draft I had plenty instances of ‘was’ and no instances of ‘seem’. To make it sound better, I varied my verbs.

When Bayo didn’t lunge at Sertin for fifteen seconds, the knight’s comfort grew. He felt like he could stay, especially since George looked comfortable.Bayo waited. The knight’s comfort grew. He felt like he could stay, especially since Jacob seemed so comfortable.

There is the use of felt in this passage as well. Part of me wrote seemed so comfortable just because I liked how it sounded.

Erupt

My first draft had many sentences like, ‘And then it appeared that they started to begin to start laughing suddenly’. I exaggerate, but the spirit is true. I used ‘to start’ far to often when nothing was better.

Most of the time I just removed start and the sentence worked fine. Unless a character laughed from the beginning of time they must have started at some point.

Everyone, who was laughing throughout the fight, started to cheer and clap. George took off his own helmet and the bandits crowded around him.Everyone laughed throughout the fight. At the end, they erupted once more in a cheer and clapped. Jacob took off his own helmet and the bandits crowded around him.

I feel clever using this example. I contextualize the crowd as laughing. If I wrote, ‘they laughed’ it would be redundant, and if I wrote ‘they started laughing’ it would be downright confusing.

Long story short: I like erupt because it is a violent start.

Led

Jacob starts as a follower and ends as a leader. It was a simple choice to write ‘Jacob led’.

With all farewells concluded, Jacob and his went party south west.With all farewells concluded, Jacob led his party west.

Easily much better.

Lay

Lay and Stood I have been peppering in to replace boring instances of ‘was’. Because my knowledge of verbs are limited when I wrote the third draft, all of my things were something.

The fourth draft I changed that and put in better words.

It was perfectly flat…It lay perfectly flat.

Stood

Just like lay, I use stood to place characters, well, in place.

It [The Stone] was conspicuously beside an opening into the mountain range.The stone conspicuously stood beside an opening into the mountain range.

I will find more verbs.

That’s all for now.

17 Quality Verbs and The Why

When you are learning a second language, the quickest way to obtain fluency is by learning more verbs. But, rarely do writers work on their verb vocabulary in their native language. This lack causes writers to get lost in the sea of clarity. Their ships endlessly spiraling from weak verb to weak verb.

This should not be your fate! You have the opportunity to chart a course out of that archipelago.

People want action: Give them Verbs

Powerful verbs create powerful prose. Before you consider any other type of word to upgrade your writing, master the verb.

Quality Verbs are Short

Don’t bore readers with your large words. Short words always read faster. Action should be fast. Slow action is a disservice to the reader. Use snappy words.

When should you use long verbs?

I love some large verbs. A favorite being ‘overwhelm. I pay for this word in advance by using short verbs around it. Long verbs help with contrast, but only if you are using short verbs.

Quality Verbs are Concise

Consider the sentence. ‘Be more thoughtful of the sentence.’ That sentence is better written as ‘consider the sentence’.

While we write, we encounter state-of-being verbs, they signify an opportunity to find a better verb.

State-of-being verbs are words like, are, is, was, and were. They are necessary. Don’t religiously remove them. Be mindful of how you write. Mind the words you use. [Sentence edited to remove state-of-being verb ‘be’]

While we are writing, every time there is a state-of-being verb, it is a sign that there may be a better verb to use.
While we write, we encounter state-of-being verbs, they signify an opportunity to find a better verb.

These two examples delineate the power of using quality verbs.

Adverbs must be stricken down. [Not: adverbs need to be stricken down. Must is a better verb in this case]

Adverbs act like salt. They heighten flavor but no one wants to taste salt alone.

Apparently, he ate quickly. Thoroughly surprising his fellow campers. He promptly and softly walked back to his cabin. Happily he cozily got into bed and peacefully slept.
He wolfed down his food. Shocking his fellow campers into reverence. Without wasting time, he sauntered back to his cabin. He snuggled into bed, and napped.

I dropped ‘apparently’, it lacked importance. ‘Thoroughly’ became ‘into reverence.’ The emotion of reverence described my intention better than an adverb ever could. ‘Promptly’ became ‘Without wasting time’. ‘Sauntered’ is a beautiful verb, we will be seeing it later. ‘Happily’ was dropped: not important. Peacefully slept could have been just ‘slept’, but I decided napped was a better word.

The exact choices were subjective, but the end result is not. You are capable of stronger writing, let your ear guide you. Don’t grab fancy words for the sake of them, let new words meet you one by one. As if you were going on blind dates with them.

Quality Verbs are Fun

The pirates jumped on board the ship. They drew their weapons and charged. Jimbo was the first to charge back, he drew his pistol and shot a zombie pirate. The priate fell onto the aft deck. Jimbo needed to get himself and Francisco off the ship. If they could get a rowboat they could sneak away into the night. The only problem was Francisco was already unconsciousness.
The pirates leapt onto the ship. They unsheathed their swords and attacked. Jimbo confronted them head on, he aimed his pistol and blasted a zombie pirate. The pirate collapsed onto the aft deck. Jimbo needed to get himself and Francisco off the ship. If they got a rowboat they could slip away into the night. Jimbo’s problem was Francisco fell. A zombie struck him unconscious.

I rest my case.

There are two things I did to promote this prose. First, I used synonyms to remove repeated verbs. The synonyms I chose better described the nouns. Both a sword and pistol can be drawn, but unsheathed is better for swords and aim better for pistols.

Second, I turned passive voice into active voice. This will be elaborated on in a later article.

List of 17 Quality Verbs

This list is short for a reason, I actually want you to learn them. With each verb, a micro-essay elaborates my opinion. I hope you will love them deeper than I.

Let’s chew on these verbs.

Let

Let is verb that paints the intentions and experience of a character. Let me show you what I mean in this example.

‘Rachel let her heels click on the floor. The squabbling men paused and looked at her.’

There are a few things going on here, we know she is walking. We are describing an effect of walking (heels clicking) to indirectly hint at her step. This works because the sentence describes her relationship to her environment. Rachel is letting her heels click, this implies she is in control. Characters that are in control are able to make choices, and choices reveal character. In this case, she is letting the men know that she is there; they hear her heels click. By extension, this means Rachel wants to be noticed.

I love this verb, ‘let’ gives intention and control to a character. It is a common word, but I don’t see it used often in writing. It is short, snappy, I like those qualities. Sprinkle it in, you will not disappoint you.

Aim

Humans are hunting creatures, we have bifocal vision to help us aim. Take advantage of this verb to describe character intentions. Like let, it is short and common.

Overwhelm

Overwhelm serves two functions that I know of. It is a powerful verb for emotion. For example: Joy overwhelmed Jack. Note how I made joy the noun, to keep it in active voice. This isn’t strictly necessary. Saying ‘Jack was overwhelmed with joy’ works, but I prefer the active phrasing of this idea.

Naturally, overwhelm can be used in conflict. ‘The army overwhelmed the rebels.’

Say

The absolute best word to use for dialogue attribution is said. Infinitive form: ‘to say’.

Why? Say is simple. Due to it’s simplicity it is applicable in all forms of writing, for any character. Authors use it. Readers like the familiarity.

Said is an interesting word. It gets editted out by the reader’s eye. Without so much as a ripple, it nudges the dialogue forward.

Feint

Give your audience conflict. The verb ‘to feint’ implies conflict. Feinting is a lie by action.

When a character feints a strike, or feints a helping hand it signifies that they want their counter party to be in the dark about what they are actually doing.

All of that power is in five letters. Use them.

Become

Become is a powerful transformation verb.

I love ‘become’. I often write ‘is turned into’. This clunky three word phrase can be replaced by some form of to become.

Narrative fictions dramatizes transformation. ‘To become’ is your ticket to making the audience believe it.

Pause

Characters are either acting, or thinking. When a character thinks they will change what they are doing (new information), or continue (fighting off doubts). Often, writers use stop when they should be using pause.

As a quick rule: when the character changes his plan, use stop.

If the character continues his plan, use pause.

With pause, you can work character doubts seamlessly into the narrative.

Rub

Versatile verb. You will find your favorite uses in no time.

My favorite use: directing attention to discomfort.

‘Fred rubbed his eyes.’ — Tired

‘Fred rubbed his feet.’ — Sore

‘Fred rubbed his hands together.’ — Anxious

This isn’t a list of cliches to memorize. You can discover uses by a simple experiment. Your in the comfort of your own home. No? Pretend you are. Rub anything nearby. Instantly your brain constructs a story to match with the action.

Hair? — Self-conscious

Doorknob? — Indecisive

Nose? — Sick

Wrist/watch? — Impatient

Naturally, ‘To rub’ has limits. Find them.

Grapple

Let your characters break each other’s arms.

Or a gnome can’t hold a human broom, and grapples with it instead.

I love the sound of grapple — I prefer it to wrestle (which sounds like a two-year-old’s attempt to say whistle) — but that’s not enough to justify its power.

Conflict between two actors is built into the sub-structure of grapple. Every time you read grapple, it signals conflict. Conflict compels readers to turn pages, spellbound, when they ought to sleep.

Squint

You are a fool if you miss this opportunity to capture body language so fluently. Body language is complicated, to describe a pose in detail will bore the reader.

His right hand was on his breast, the left hung limply. He kneeled — BLAH BLAH BLAH. I won’t read this drivel.

Use this powerful verb: SHOW your characters attitude.

Respond

There are many ways to respond. Making this verb versatile. Often used with the preposition ‘by’.

She responded by flipping the bird.

Good. We can imply ignoring by misdirection.

She responded by looking away.

Use a colon for more punch. Fruity, but I leave it to your discernment.

She responded: a left hook at his jaw.

Em-dash for style.

She responds — walking away.

Assemble

Groups of people can be assembled. Space engineers assemble Sci-fi thingy-a-whatsits.

When an actor assembles a team, it shows her leadership.

After the assembly is well, assembled, the team robs an armored money-van. Or something equally important.

Evil assembles its minions too.

Like clouds assembling into a storm, when your novel’s factions assemble it only means one thing: war.

Sauntered

Sauntered is a fantastic synonym for walk. When I write a character walking softly, I am tempted to write sneak, tiptoe, slink, stalk, or tread. While all of these verbs get close, they associate with stealth. (Except for tread, which is slow, but not by necessity quiet.)

Saunter fulfills the purpose of easy, quiet walking without sneaking. However, it risks being seductive. I don’t mind. Saunter is a verb writers ignore, but readers understand.

Maintain

At times, things remain unchanged, but not without effort. If your hero maintains something, they care for it as it is. Show that care.

He maintained his aloofness — Classic, with good reason.

He maintains an arsenal of weapons. — Paranoia is a form of caring.

I maintain that the law doesn’t matter. — The ‘I’ holds this position.

Maintain is a versatile verb. I feel that it has a formal air, your experience may differ.

Form

Experience forms a boy into a man.

The wire mesh formed the furniture.

Smoke swirled about and formed a tunnel.

God formed the world.

Form is a powerful verb. It transforms, builds, and manifests. Transformation motivates narrative, but used in this why appears rarely.

More often, use it in environment descriptions, it readily builds complex structure from any material. For example: the towering greenery flattened and formed a ceiling.

From nothing creation is rarer than the first use. But may I suggest formation of ideas. For example: A new idea formed in Charles mind. Or: Charles mind formed a new idea.

Did you see that? Form is powerful. Something can be changing, or causing change and form will describe both.

Faze

Best used in conjunction with a negative modifier. ‘Magic did not faze Quibbiespak’, ‘The herd of pink elephants didn’t even faze Quibbiespak’, or ‘Nothing seemed to faze Quibbiespak.’

As you can tell, Quibbiespak is one unconcerned fellow. Which is the point, if a character is unfazed, it implies them being above it all.

Use in moderation, trust your ear.

Where can I find more?

Read more.

…and I’ll share more lists later.

Even more important than finding more is strengthening your connection to the verbs you learn. Go on a second date with them. Now that these verbs are at your attention, you will spot them as you read. Note how powerful they are.

Seize that fire, and run with it.

Dialogue Attribution: The Basics

Dialogue Attribution answers the question, ‘Who Said That?’

Dialogue is often necessary for compelling characters. A character’s unique voice carries the narrative and endears the audience to your story. However, many writers do not craft their dialogue well. Readers are often left wondering about who is speaking, how, and to whom.

Attribution of dialogue is when the author tells the reader who said a quote.

“I’m going to get a coffee, with nineteen shots of espresso.” James said.
Someone, please help James.

We know that James said this quote of dialogue; the narrator told us. Complications occur if the narrator is untrustworthy or shackled to a limited perspective.

Trustworthy or not, the dialogue attribution’s style creates a poetic quality. This poetry is vital for the rhythm of the piece and clarity of the narrative.

In this post I will describe my personal journey of dialogue attribution.

I started with said.

In the wild I giggled, guffawed, and growled.

Then back home — I stretched and again said my lines clearly.

Subtly of a sledgehammer

Using said with every piece of dialogue is as poetic as a hotel wake-up phone call. What it loses in style it makes up for in clarity. Since clarity is highest goal of dialogue attribution, it is better than fancy styles.

James said, “What do you mean I’ve got the jitters?”
“You are quaking like an Italian flag in a hurricane.” Said Leah.
“So? I can still help.” James said.
Leah said, “Right now, Nope. I can’t trust you with scissors.”

This is how I initially wrote dialogue. The problem with this method is that said becomes repetitive. It will grate on the ear within two pages.

Laugh a line

After writing a first draft for my fantasy novel, I was introduced to a fancy style of writing. It involves taking any verb, other than said, to convey the dialogue. This method bypasses all ear grating of using said continuously.

James giggled, “What do you mean I’ve got the jitters?”
“You are quaking like an Italian flag in a hurricane.” Explained Leah.
“So? I can still help.” James pleaded.
“Nope. Right now, I can’t trust you with scissors.” Leah denied.

The disadvantage of using any and all verbs is that they begin to sound silly. Or worse, pretentious. It is also a lazy way of getting across the speakers attitude. These problems are evident below.

“Will you go out with me?” Charles mewed.
“No. You smell like old fish.” Yosef countermanded.
“I treat you so well, and this is how I get repaid.” Bellowed Charles.
“Ha. Is that how this works? You earn dates with good behavior?” Joked Yosef.

This is a classic case of telling and not showing. Instead I recommend using action to paint the character’s attitude in the situation.

“Will you go out with me?” Charles said, leaning forward, head tilted.
Yosef wrinkled his nose, “No. You smell like old fish.
“I treat you so well, and this is how I get repaid.” Charles shook as he yelled.
“Ha.” Yosef leaned back and smirked, “Is that how this works? You earn dates with good behavior?”

My red and green coloring indicates which I prefer. I recommend dropping that 217 word list of ‘instead of said’ verbs. Start visualizing the action of your characters. This will get easier as you practice and requires a deeper intimacy with your characters. Which leads me into my stage of my journey.

Action is how Character is Revealed

Let’s go back to my original example, I will write the dialogue attribution as I would now. I realized after the second draft of my fantasy novel that my logophile vocabulary of verbs (Oogled, countermanded, prodded, chanted) only demoted my writing. I prefer choice verbs, character action, a sprinkling of said, and when possible: nothing.

James looked at Leah, eyebrows cocked. “What do you mean I’ve got the jitters?”
“You are quaking like an Italian flag in a hurricane.” Said Leah.
“So? I can still help.”
“Nope. Right now, I can’t trust you with scissors.”

James is established as the subject. His dialogue is then indicated by quotations. His actions explain that he confronts Leah — He’s not afraid to meet her gaze, and his quizzical emotion is clear. This could be part of his character, perhaps he often looks directly at people. I do not explain that James is shaking because in the next line Leah does it for us.

In the second line I use ‘said Leah’ to let the reader set up a back and forth with James and Leah. It is the smallest way to nudge the reader to understanding. This works because said is often “edited out” by the readers eye. By far, said is the most concise way to explain who is talking.

The last two lines use my favorite technique, doing nothing. Because the context has been in the first line, subtly affirmed in the second line, the speaker can be safely assumed for the third and forth line.

If more dialogue is spoken I will drop in small bits of action here and there to associate the quote with the character. This works especially well at turning points in the dialogue. The more action I put in, the slower the dialogue will read.

That’s all she wrote

Whether your writing journey follows mine or just crosses it, write with confidence in your experience. Clarity is the most important part of dialogue attribution. The style and poetry of your prose will evolve with your experience. I am happy to share mine.

How to use the Em-Dash

Let me introduce you to your new best friend, the em-dash. He looks dashing with his wide figure, ‘—’.

There are three types of horizontal rules, the hypen (-), the en-dash (–), and the em-dash (—). Despite the em-dash’s long history, it is rarely used by writers. The em dash is a powerful tool. Novelists ignore it their own peril.

Interruption

Em-dashes provide a crisp way of indicating interruption. Be sure to use an example of it early in your work with clarification like so—

“Listen listen! I want to tell—”
“I am busy right now,” Blake said, interrupting, “Another time.”

From that point on, you can use the em-dash, its association with interruption has been established.

I stand up and begin to walk.
Suddenly there is a pain in my chest. I can’t breathe.
I stand up and begin to walk—
A pain in my chest. I can’t breathe.
Em-dash used for interruption of action.
“Hello Roger. Your room is ready sir, right this.”
Roger interrupted him saying, “Oh! What’s this?”
“Hello Roger. Your room is ready sir, right this—”
“Oh! What’s this?”
Em-dash used for interruption of dialogue.

In my opinion, the Em-dash used for interruption is good it you want to write action, especially in thrillers. It makes the work faster paced, and more visual. This being at the expense of poetic considerations.

Pause

“I suppose this,” He looked up at the clock, “This means all my work was for nothing?”
“I suppose this—this means all my work was for nothing?”
Em-dash used for a pause in dialogue

In the above example, the em-dash can be mistaken for stuttering. I read it as a small pause, 2 seconds at most. The above example is great, I love clarifying action that paces dialogue. The utility of the em-dash though is apparent in the second example.

Simultaneous Action

“And just like that,” as he talks he snaps his fingers, “I removed three words from this sentence.”
“And just like that,”—he snaps his fingers—”I removed three words from this sentence.”
Em-dash used for simultaneous action within dialogue.
“Your passport has been out of date for seven years, its your fault,” While Fred spoke, Jacklyn talked over top of him.
“What? Its my fault?!” Jacklyn couldn’t get a word in edgewise, Fred never stopped talking.
“that you didn’t take the time to go to the government office.”
Fred said, “Your passport has been out of date for seven years, its your fault—”
“—What? its my fault?!—” Jacklyn tried to interrupt Fred.
“—that you didn’t take the time to go to the government office.”
Em-dash used for simultaneous dialogue.

In the same way, the em-dash can be used to time dialogue within action, or action within action. Using more words isn’t an error if you have more to say. In the above example, I find the original piece without the em-dash to be funnier, more emotional, and more specific. The rework with the em-dash is faster, harsh, and more chaotic.

Emphatic Parenthetical Statements

Using the em-dash for parenthetical statements has a different feel than using commas or parentheses. In the following examples I feel the lines are made casual by the em-dash.

Along the road, he saw a duck, which on its own isn’t unusual, but this duck had a ice-cream sundae.
Along the road, he saw a duck—which on its own isn’t unusual—but this duck had a knife.
Em-dash used for a parenthetical statement replacing commas.
He memorized poetry (He adored Ross Gunther’s poetry), while he was in the priesthood.
He memorized poetry—He adored Ross Gunther’s poetry—while he was in the priesthood.
Em-dash used for a parenthetical statement replacing parentheses.

In place of a colon

Among other uses, the colon adds emphasis to a sentence. When the colon is used in this way, consider using the em-dash. It feels less rigid, every trick you can use to get the tone you want should be used.

It was that time of day again: the sacrifice.
It was that time of day again—the sacrifice.
Em-dash used for replacing a colon.