Dialogue Attribution Verbs—Myths and Realities
[Excerpted from Final Edit, the Final Hours of Your Final Draft.]
A popular misconception among writers is that one should avoid “said” as much as possible and, in its place, substitute any sound-related term imaginable, the more obscure, the more desirable. I have seen novels in which the author did not use “said” even once because of this misconception, to the detriment of the work. Because I work in the field of computational linguistics using the corpus of bestselling novels for my research, I can state with certainty that this does not occur in books by bestselling authors.
To promote either of these misconceptions is tantamount to a music teacher promoting the notion that a performance should include wrong notes “in order to distinguish one’s performance from that of others performing the same work,” and the more wrong notes, the merrier!
The truth of the matter is that 80% or more of your attributions should use the verbs “said” or “asked.” “Said” is always invisible to the reader and “asked” shares that characteristic in most cases. The remaining 20% of attributions should be distributed among words that can actually refer to human speech! In other words, you cannot say, “she grinned” or “she grimaced” in place of “she said” because grinning and grimacing cannot produce human words.
Use “said” more than all the other attributions combined: at least twice as often as “asked” (2.33 times as many is a good ratio). The complete list of acceptable attributions follows, in order of preference by frequency of usage by bestselling authors (determined by FictionFixer).
NORMAL: said, asked
EXOTIC: insisted, shouted, answered, whispered, gasped, explained, demanded, cried, responded, lied, observed, murmured, stuttered, mumbled, snarled, screamed, protested, muttered, hissed, yelled, replied, groaned, begged, added, declared, confessed, railed, pleaded, conceded, whined, pointed out, and “signed” (if a character uses sign language)
You will notice that every verb on the list can actually refer to the act of human speech. In this text, we will use the term “exotic” to refer to all attribution verbs that are not “said” or “asked.”
You may be wondering why “thought” is not on this list. Do not consider “thought” to be a dialogue attribution verb, rather, it is a thought attribution verb (like pondered, contemplated, reflected, speculated, and imagined). Thoughts may, in rare instances, require attributions, but the thoughts, themselves, are usually not placed in quotes. Thoughts may be in italics or not, but italicized “thoughts” do not require an attribution verb.
Here is the missing part of the puzzle. Attributions should be required in only 25% of your dialogue blocks. Note the term “dialogue blocks” in the previous sentence does not mean dialogue sentences. A dialogue block represents any number of dialogue sentences, as little as one, or as many as you like.
Professional writers manage to leave about 75% of all dialogue blocks without attributions because they take great care in structuring their dialogue so the reader always knows who is speaking. You can accomplish this by indicating the speaker in the first two dialogue paragraphs, and then letting the reader assume that the two speakers alternate until another attribution indicates otherwise or until non-dialogue text is encountered.
We know that the best ratio between normal attribution verbs and exotic attribution verbs is 80% to 20%. So, if only around 25% of our dialogue blocks should have attributions, and 80% of those should be normal attributions, then 20% of your dialogue blocks should have the normal attribution verbs, “said” and “asked.” The remaining approximately 5% of your attribution verbs can be drawn from the exotic pool.