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Watching a video from an editor yesterday, she said authors should refrain from using too many verbs on action beats, instead relying mostly on "said" and "asked".

I think it is bland. There's hundreds of verbs that can convey the character's mood, the tone used, the intent. Instead of:

"I don't think we should enter the mansion," Josh said. "It looks haunted."

"Does it now?" Kelly asked. "It might be your mind playing tricks on you. It's dark, the mansion looks old and abandoned. It's just a cliche."

"Hurry up! I don't want to stay here in the rain!" Emily said.

"Guess I'll take the lead then," Josh said.

I could enrich the dialogue by changing the verbs:

"I don't think we should enter the mansion," Josh conjectured. "It looks haunted."

"Does it now?" Kelly teased. "It might be your mind playing tricks on you. It's dark, the mansion looks old and abandoned. It's just a cliche."

"Hurry up! I don't want to stay here in the rain!" Emily whined.

"Guess I'll take the lead then," Josh bemoaned.

What are the pros and cons of either sticking to "said" and "asked" or using more diverse verbs for the action beats?

5 Answers 5

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I think the first example is much easier to read. As a reader, I should be focused on the dialog itself, not trying to decipher the tags. For example, reading 'Josh conjectured' took me out of the scene because my brain took a moment to understand the word and then imagine a person 'conjecturing'. It's not a word that is typically used day to day.

I think different tags can work but use them very sparingly, and for a specific reason. In your example, I like the tag 'teased' you have for Kelly because it expands on her tone (and indicates a level of cheekiness).

Trying to get too creative with tags can lead to double-telling. Emily's tag is redundant - we can safely assuming she's whining because she's complaining about the rain.

If you don't like the blandness of repeatedly using 'said', another way to remove so many tags from a short scene would be to replace 'said' with an action, so it's clear who's speaking. e.g. Emily glanced up nervously to the dark clouds forming. "Hurry up, I don't want to get wet!"

If I was writing this scene, and obviously without context of the larger story, in regards to the dialog tags I might do something like this:

"I don't think we should enter the mansion," Josh said. "It looks haunted."

"Does it now?" Kelly teased. "It might be your mind playing tricks on you. It's dark, the mansion looks old and abandoned. It's just a cliche."

Emily glanced up nervously to the dark clouds forming. "Hurry up, I don't want to get wet!"

Josh looked to the others. No-one else had taken a step closer to the mansion. "Guess I'll take the lead then."

Essentially, I think the advantages of using 'said', is that readers are so used to them, they can become invisible and the dialog takes center stage, as it should. Action beats are often more effective at adding to the scene while also indicating who's speaking so the tag isn't needed. Again, action beats should be used sparingly in a specific scene - in your example, using an action beat in all 4 instances would be overkill as well.

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  • Yes. It's true that repeatedly writing "said" can get monotonous. But trying to find an alternate word for each time a character speaks will be obvious and distracting. Especially when you get to the point that you are using words like "opined" and "conjectured".
    – Jay
    Jul 14, 2023 at 5:50
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MikeS gives the correct answer.

It is case-by-case.

I agree with his edit: a nice balance of tags and action, never repeating.

I offer a frame challenge: there is more to it than just tagging dialog so we know who spoke. Every word should contribute to your story including these tags and action beats – it's not just about tags and actions.

Subtext is where you build character and conflict

When alternate tags are used, they are not arbitrarily picked from the thesaurus.

Biased tags tell us something about the character.

"Kelly teased" is valuable character information that is contrary to her dialog. Her words are rational skepticism, pure logic like a Vulcan..., but that's not her subtext motive for saying it.

With that one biased verb, Kelly becomes an interesting story element, whether the mansion is haunted or not. She is smart and aggressive, a player even if she is not leading.... Since this information is subtext, the reader feels there's something (depth) there but her motives are not specific yet.

MikeS expanded on this dichotomy by stating that Kelly doesn't lead into the mansion (she is not a rival to Josh), which de-escalates some hostility in her words. She is maybe not an emasculating bitch, she is maybe talking bravely to convince herself and Josh heard it as teasing.

Presenting the reader with conflicting information means they have to navigate their own interpretation. Even with MikeS' additional characterization, Kelly has some depth that remains undefined.

Kelly feels older than Emily who has a selfish motivation that baldly matches her words. Alternately, Emily is not playing games with Josh's ego because she is direct and practical about the crisis at hand.

Verbose thesaurus substitutions point at the author.

'Conjecture' is wrong because it undermines your protagonist. We have no setup to know how Josh arrived at his conjecture, but it's ostensibly false (until we're shown otherwise that paranormal exists).

The author is flat out telling us Josh (our Protagonist) is wrong while he's saying a thing that is wrong. It's redundant, like Emily whined.

"It looks haunted," Josh lied.

I won't re-write Josh, but I point out his character is inconsistent and that's a much bigger problem than picking a tag or action beat.

We need a hint why he is saying it looks haunted. We already know it's false on the surface, but does Josh believe it? Then his later actions 'leading' feels out-of-character (a plot hole MikeS fixed).

Is Josh trying to discourage Emily by scaring her? This completely changes the motivation for what Kelly says after. Unfortunately you can't just leave the subtext to work itself out. We need a hint what's motivating Josh.

Tom Swifty

This question always reminds me of Tom Swifty puns, which parody dialog descriptions with a double meaning:

"I'm freezing!" Tom remarked icily.

I'd like to stop by the mausoleum," Tom said cryptically."

Tom Swifties are exaggerated dialog tags. The joke is when the description is taken literally, it matches what was said in the dialog. A Tom Swifty explanation from a writer's blog: https://www.rosswelford.com/lets-talk-about-adverbs-he-said-swiftly/

Remember Tom Swifties as 'bad' examples, things to avoid. Your alternate tags need to grow the subtext, by giving contrast or nuance to the actual dialog.

Avoid repeating what was just said literally in the dialog. If it's not new information it probably isn't necessary so keep it simple and undistracting.

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Oh, please, don't be purple.

Using overly flowery words distracts from the content and from the story. "Said" (and pretty much also "asked" and "replied" or "answered") is a largely invisible word that doesn't steal the attention that should belong elsewhere.

Words like "teased" or "whined" are fine to use in moderation, at points of the text where you really want to point out the tone. Say, one or two of these in a page-long scene. Very conspicuous words like "bemoaned" or even worse "conjectured" are generally best avoided completely. These words are grenades. Don't use them unless you really want them to make a deafening boom.

If you think that "said Alice" tags make for a bland narration, try something else. Leave them out. Instead, pair the line with description of the speaker's action where at all possible (and you can even include a description of inaction). This generally does the multiple duty of informing the reader who's speaking, setting the mood, and giving engaging details that make the text enjoyable.

"And this is what the place looks like." Alice threw a stack of photos on the table.
Bob still didn't bother opening his eyes. "Yes, that's very nice and all, but did you actually check the escape routes?"
Carol clenched her fists. "Course we did. What are you taking us for?"
"Really, man." Dan shook his head and lazily blew out a smoke ring. "By now you should know the girls are pros."

It's entirely possible to overdo these as well, but they usually can take you a fairly long way without being excessive, and without making your story look like a game of "what's the biggest word I can find in the thesaurus?".

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The Action Verbs Are Lairs

The action verbs make you - as the author - feel like you've described the situation in depth. But you have not. They lied to you.

Is Kelly playfully teasing (flirting?) or is she mean-teasing (bullying)?

Is Emily worried about the rain because she's vain and its going to ruin her outfit, or is she under dressed and worried about being cold?

These are interesting distinctions. They tell us about the character. And it's really easy to update your dialog to tell the difference; describe the way Kelly looks at John while she says her line, and mention Emily shivering. It takes maybe 10 more words, but it gives the reader a much better understanding of the situation.

Action verbs as dialog tags make you feel like these descriptions aren't needed - "I already said she's teasing him!" But the scene would be stronger if you'd used just a few more words to tell the reader more.

And the action verbs make you feel like you don't need to -- that's why they're bad.

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I think that it depends on the intent, intensity, and purpose of the message that the author is trying to communicate. However, for the most part, I think that verbs used on action beats should not be overused.

The problem with using too many words on action beats is that it makes dialogue-less readable and distracts from what is being said. For the most part, verbs used to communicate that something is being "said" should be invisible to the reader, unless it is important to the story. Take, for example, this sentence.

"Hi Cinda," said Mark, "how's it going?"

"No very well. Something is wrong with my father," said Cinda.

"Oh," replied Mathew. He lowered his head. "I'm sorry to hear that."

In this sentence, when "said" and "replied" are used, they are near-inviable. The reader is instead focused on what the characters are feeling, the action of the scene, and the dynamic between the characters.

On top of that, the reader is given the freedom to decide exactly how the characters are responding to each other, and the ramifications that that has on the scene.

On the other hand, when the sentence is written like this:

"Hi Cinda," beamed Mark, "how's it going?"

"No very well. Something is wrong with my father," wailed Cinda.

"Oh," sniffled Mathew. He lowered his head. "I'm sorry to hear that."

The dialogue here is weakened because the reader is forced to focus on things that distract from the message that is communicated. Not only does the reader have to spend extra effort trying to contemplate words that don't add anything to the dialogue, but it also limits creativity. It deprives the reader of the ability to imagine for themselves how the characters are talking to each other.

However, even though I think that such verbs shouldn't be overused, I do think, when used sparingly, they can help improve a story.

For example.

"My father. He-he, is dead," said John.

This sentence does not really invoke too much emotion on its own. However, when the correct verb is used here:

"My father. He-he, is dead," cried John.

The sentence is improved because it helps to establish the emotion of the character.

So, ultimately, I think that it depends on the intent of the author and what they want the reader to focus on. However, I think that verbs used on action beats should not be overused for the sake of impact and clarity.

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