Said, asked and so on, whats really best to describe your characters talking?


Well-Known Member
Jul 26, 2021
I've came across this a few times where people just recommend just typing "he said" or "he asked" instead of going into more detail. I'll agree it's very simply and to the point, but what if you are trying to convey a bit more detail then the dialogue by itself would, as, lets face it, some people misread what's put in front of them.

For example, would the following work better if we just ended the lines with "she said" or "he said" then what I've put down here?

"Oh I like that," she purred.

"I think you should leave, now." he growled.

Or would these lines work better if they were expanded a bit more, like this?

"Oh I like that," she purred like a cat eyeing an open can of cream.

"I think you should leave, now." he growled with his teeth bared and head down.

Just to clarify, I'm perfectly fine with using "he said" or "she said" or "she asked" when there's no need at all for more details to paint the scene, but I do think it can be helpful to provide a bit more context.
I don't like either of those much, as a person can't literally purr words and could only just growl them (I know what's intended, but still). Unless there was some very specific need for another word, I'd go with "said" and say something about what the person is doing that implies the way it's being said.

He stood up so quickly that his chair fell over. "I think you should leave, now," he said. (Although this would probably be punchier without the "he said" at all).
For me, @Toby Frost 's version works better.

If I was trying to stick with your words, I would change the punctuation, and perhaps add a paragraph break after the quoted speech.

"Oh I like that."
She purred like a cat eyeing an open can of cream.

"I think you should leave, now."
He growled with his teeth bared and head down.

Although that does actually change the sense somewhat, and particularly in the first case changes the metaphorical to the literal.

(And I have a further objection to the purring business - cats and cream - I don't think any of ours would purr.:cautious:)
I favor using only said and asked, and minimizing the number of tags. In a conversation between two people, only the first utterance needs to be tagged. I will second @Toby Frost's suggestion that, if it is included, additional stage direction ('action beats') should precede the dialog. Otherwise, I try to serialize descriptive sections, dialog sections, and action sections. I feel that this increases clarity and flow.

If you would like a rationale behind this, what works for me, is the premise that the reader has two distinct reading modes: dialog and description. Feel free to accept or reject that assumption. Once I accepted the premise, though, I realized that the reader is either paying attention to the dialog and ignoring any added description or the reader is paying attention to the description and ignoring the dialog. Thus, if I want the reader to process both dialog and actions, I need to keep them separate -- presented serially, not in parallel.

As for moving action beats to the front, the logic behind this is that the reader will maintain the mode established at the end of the sentence.

I would probably recast the initial lines as,

"Oh," she purred. "I like that."

"I think you should leave now."

I feel that the dialog is sufficient to convey completely different emotional states without further embellishment. I could even agree with replacing 'purred' with 'said,' as the dialog conveys the attitude sufficiently. Each writer, though, needs to make the choice that best express his or her own style. I hope my thought process, though, might provide some underlying reasons for adopting some of the stated rules.
What the others said. Try to think of actions, even small ones like facial expressions, to convey nuanced meaning. Things like purr and growl take us out of the immediacy of the dialogue, unless you're using those characteristics as an ongoing metaphorical trail of the character.
I agree with the above. I'll add a tiny thing, which can be inferred from Wayne Mack's post; namely, using two such tags one after the other is a bit much. Purr or growl; choose one. You can use the other in some other scene. But the more you pile up such usages, the more attention you draw to them. And away from dialogue and the actual moment.
'Said' is usually enough for most situations in my writing (these days), though I'll use other terms and add description if I think they are needed.

I tend to look at these tags in the context of the overall conversation, pacing of the scene and whether the speaking character is established at the time, so although something like 'he asked' after a question mark or an expression may be redundant, they may work in the wider scheme of things.
The concept is that said is an invisible word when reading - we glance over it without being pulled out of the narrative.

But! It’s not invisible in audio books. It’s very intrusive. Which is, in part, why action tags - no said etc but an attached action like Toby used to denote the speaker - have become more popular
The way I see it, the only reason to use a tag other than "said" is if you want to draw attention to the tag for some reason.
So as to whether these examples work or not is impossible to say since they are just single lines with no context.
However something like "Oh I like that," she purred like a cat eyeing an open can of cream. does not work for me since the tag is longer than the dialogue and I the simile is taking over and so detracting from the intention of the line. Although, as I say, with no context, I have no idea of the line's intention or subtext.
I don't think it's necessary to go through a list of words to use instead of 'said'. If there is a reason for something to be said in a certain way (eg sarcastically) then mention it. But as others have said, it's possible to construct sentences quite often in a way that removes the need for 'he said' 'she said' conversations.

Fiona eyed the diamond greedily "Oh, I like that."

Fred determined that he wouldn't fall for her charms this time "I think you should leave. Now."

"But why?"

"You know why"
Said is an invisible word, although see Jo's comment above. It should be used almost all the time. Replied is acceptable if used sparsely, answered less so. Words like purred and growled should be used never, or at most once per novel. As for cats... doesn't that rather take the reader's attention away from the spoken part? It's completely unnecessary.
I agree with those above. In my earlier writing days (I'm talking youth) I used all kinds of verbs to signify someone speaking. But "said" is so simple and so common that it doesn't bother me if I'm reading it (excellent note about the audiobook version up above; I've not listened to a fiction audiobook before, but I could imagine constantly using "said" could be tiring).

But when I write dialogue, I often sprinkle in action beside the speaker's dialogue. Sometimes to help set the scene, other times because it would flow better than a 'he said' in that particular context. Honestly, I think it's mainly about flow. Sometimes, and often, you need very little (as long as it's absolutely clear who's doing the talking). Everyone here has brought up some amazing points.

In terms of your examples, I'll echo that using two pretty obtrusive verbs back-to-back to describe their speech draws too much attention to those words. Without knowing context, I would say you wouldn't even need dialogue tags for those. Assuming you've established in some way that the first character was speaking beforehand (I suppose she was looking at something?). And the second line of dialogue is strong enough on its own that it conveys the proper emotion without informing the reader how he said it. It's not really a line that can be misconstrued.
Piece of string. Some readers have very strong opinions on using words that 100% make sense for humans; others are happy with thing going a bit poetically. Some favour a simple approach that puts the focus on the words spoken, others like a bunch of snarleds and snappeds and what not. I know I do. To me, the latter feels like someone telling a story about what they've seen. But the former has its place too. I think my personal preference is to dispense with them when possible and to use something descriptive when not, but why should my personal preference be yours?

So my advice would be to go with whatever your heart desires, and see what your beta readers and editors make of it. And remember that if they tell you to use said 90% of the time, remind yourself that in the Night Manager John le Carre's first 9 dialogue descriptors were breathed, declared, purred, replied, ordered, asked, replied, asked and replied again, and finally he uses said for the 10th time. And if its good enough for John le Carre it's good enough for you.

(And I have a further objection to the purring business - cats and cream - I don't think any of ours would purr.:cautious:)

Is this because they're not cream fans, or because they would start yowling like you just stood on their tail while stalking closer with the clear intent of knocking it off the table
Is this because they're not cream fans, or because they would start yowling like you just stood on their tail while stalking closer with the clear intent of knocking it off the table
We have four different reactions.
Oatmeal (who died in October) was ill for 18 months and delivering his medication in cream would have been the ideal system: Get that **** out of my face.
Piper (6kg): I'm just going to hang here silently, sharpening my claws on the back of your legs, until you hand it over.
Ginge (3kg of concentrated attitude): Me, me, me, NOW!
Squeak (3kg of whing-o-matic cat): Wheeeeee!

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