In my tireless dedication to discussing all things dialogue-tag-related, I finally decided to go ahead and make up a few lists, in order to clarify what verbs go with dialogue tags—and which don’t.
Before you dive in, some important things to consider:
First, less dialogue is better in almost every story. An overview of the concept can be found in “Cut the Chit-Chat.” The more dialogue you can condense, make into thoughts, or eliminate altogether, the less you have to worry about speaking verbs.
Second, throwing in a verb such as “expostulate” instead of “said” is not the best solution to keeping your dialogue tags from being monotonous. Simply finding other verbs to tag a piece of dialogue is still lazy writing. Find out more in “He Said, She Said.”
Third, you’re writing a novel, not a screenplay (details found in the appropriately-titled “Novel VS Screenplay”). In a screenplay, the burden of telling the story is on the actors. The actors show the emotions. Dialogue in a novel rarely provides the level of depth that it does in TV or movies because a reader can only provide the character speaking the emotional depth the writer has already provided for that character via internal thoughts.
There are a number of places online to find lists of speaking verbs. I collated (and deleted) some from this list and this list. I would simply have reposted the lists as they appear, but I don’t agree with all the choices the people have made regarding what are acceptable speaking verbs. My editing, my rules. So with all that said, here’s the list.
Acceptable Speaking Verbs
Admit, advise, agree, announce, answer, argue, ask, babble, bark, beg, bellow, blubber, blurt, brag, cackle, call, chant, charge, chatter, chirp, cluck, coax, comment, complain, concede, confess, confide, coo, croak, cry, declare, demand, drawl, drone, exclaim, explain, groan, growl, grunt, hint, hiss, holler, hoot, howl, implore, inform, insist, interrupt, intone, jabber, moan, mock, mumble, murmur, mutter, narrate, offer, parrot, plead, preach, proclaim, profess, query, ramble, rant, remonstrate, repeat, reply, report, respond, retort, roar, sass, scream, screech, shout, shriek, sing, slur, snarl, snap, sniff, snivel, sob, spit, spout, sputter, squawk, squeak, squeal, stammer, state, stutter, submit, suggest, tattle, taunt, tease, tell, twitter, urge, vent, wail, warble, whimper, whine, whisper, yammer, yell, yelp.
Now let’s take a moment to look at what verbs don’t work. I’m not going to provide all examples here, because there are simply too many. But the general rule is, if you’re doing something like laughing or coughing, your larynx is busy dealing with that, so you cannot also be talking. And a furrowed brow does not a speak, nor does a scowl. Put another way, a verb that describes how someone says something is acceptable. A verb that describes some other action is not acceptable, even if it’s related to the head or face. For example:
“That’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard,” he laughed.
You can’t talk while laughing, nor have I ever heard anyone do so. Seriously, try speaking the above piece of dialogue while laughing at the same time. I promise you, people just don’t (and can’t) talk that way.
Partial List of Unacceptable Action Verbs
Laugh, cough, exhale, chortle, sigh, breathe, chuckle, giggle, pant, snicker, nod, shake, smile, grin, frown, grimace, pout, sulk, glower, wince, shrug.
But I know you want to use those action verbs, so here are some ways to do so. The first option is to simply make it into two sentences.
Leigh sighed. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how hard it was.”
In the case above you use the action without a “he said / she said” ending that gets old quickly in a novel. As a suggestion, follow the tag by opening up the idea in one or the other characters’ heads.
Leigh sighed. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how hard it was.” Leigh knew that wasn’t enough of an answer to satisfy Jeannie, but the events were too fresh—she wasn’t ready to talk about the pain.
Another way to use an action verb:
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how hard it was,” Leigh said, then sighed.
Follow the speaking verb with a comma, and then add the action.
Another common structure is tagging the dialogue with a speaking verb, then follow that with an explanation.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how hard it was,” Leigh whispered, exhaustion evident in her voice.
In this case, we’re following the speaking verb with a comma, and adding in something that expands the speaking verb or otherwise gives more to the character’s piece of dialogue.
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