She said what?

Punctuating dialogue is a nit-picky field of grey  quicksand. And one of the most confusing aspects is speech attribution. You can use dialogue tags to explicitly state who said what…

two girls fighting gif
“Fuck you bitch!” she said, opening up a can of whup-ass.

“Fuck you Bitch!” she said, opening up a can of whup-ass.

Or action  to imply who’s speaking.

Crazy Stephen Cobert
“The spots on your glasses are driving me crazy!” He grimaced, giving them and my nose a good tongue lashing.

The spots on your glasses are driving me crazy!” He grimaced, giving them and my nose a good tongue lashing.

Did you notice they weren’t punctuated the same? Where dialogue tags are part of the dialogue sentence (set off by a comma,) actions get their own sentences.

Picture of drunk guy
He knocked back a shot. “God, I love hard liquor.”

He knocked back a shot. “God, I love hard liquor.”

“Not as much as I do,” she murmured.

06 year old Armenian lady protecting her home.
“Not as much as I do,” she murmured.

Simple right? Not really… A dialogue tag must contain a verb of speaking. If the verb does anything else, then it’s an action requiring its own sentence. But why do some verbs qualify as speaking verbs (other than the obvious: said, yelled, shouted…) while others do not?

Are gasp, moan, murmur and groan actions or speech? Sometimes it depends on what genre you’re writing in. If it’s romance you can probably get away with a few moans, groans and possibly even a grunt or two in your dialogue tags.

But what about smile or spat? While you may be able to speak and smile at the same time, a smile on its own doesn’t produce words. And I’ve never met anyone that can spit and talk at the same time (although my older brother used to burp out the alphabet when we were kids. He may still do it when his wife’s not looking.)

And then there’s the ever popular: continued, countered and added. None of those are direct word producing actions. So guess what? If you use them they get their own sentence.

Below are some commonly “misused” verbs in speech tags (and yes I’ve abused them too, and probably will again:)

Began (as in they/he/she began), interrupted, erupted, suggested, complained, confessed, advised, informed, nodded, sniffed, shrugged, proposed, ordered… These should go in their own sentences adjacent to the dialogue.

Whispered, murmured, growled, groaned, moaned, breathed, muttered, panted, sighed… these verbs are often accepted in romance writing dialogue tags, and I’ve heard arguments on both sides as to the correct usage.  If words can be shouted, why can’t they be whispered or moaned? Just remember to apply whichever usage you or your editor chooses, consistently.

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