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What Is Describing Speech?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Everyone loves a good story, whether it’s heard at the knees of a grandparent who spins a good yarn, found in the pages of a book, or seen on a stage or in a film. In order to be gripping, all stories have to contain elements of drama. Sometimes, the dramatic moments are the result of what happens between characters, and at other times, they arise from how a character says something. When a storyteller, writer, or playwright tells the reader or actor how something is said, that author is using describing speech.

Verbs can be divided into two categories. Some verbs are purely functional. They inform the listener about what is being done. Verbs like “walk” and “said” offer information but no more. If a couple walks around the park, they are using their legs to move. If he says something to her, he is using his mouth and voice to speak.

Other verbs offer much more subtext in the form of the action’s manner or quality. Perhaps the couple from the previous paragraph strolled around the park; it’s now clear they are taking their time to enjoy one another. If he murmurs to her, it’s safe to assume they are affectionate words. When a writer uses describing speech, it’s this second category of verbs that are being used.

Characters in stories and plays have a lot to say, but simply letting them say these things gets boring fast. A story that relates a conversation using “he said” and “she said” too many times seems flat and uninteresting. A writer faces an additional problem if this is the only way conversations are relayed. Readers who becomes bored either walk away from the story or interpret the way in which the characters are speaking, and these interpretations might not be what the author intended.

This means that most writers employ describing speech to keep readers entertained but also to keep them informed of exactly how the character says something. Generally, these are not the same kinds of verbs people use in real-world conversations. While a character in a story might snarl, gasp, choke, or howl, it is rare for people to include those words in a conversation unless they, too, are telling the listener a story about something that has happened.

Describing speech often creates visual images. A character who sneers, jeers, or glares is easy for the reader to picture, thus enhancing the reading experience. An actor who is instructed by the playwright’s script to beg, demand, or whimper knows immediately how these words are to be spoken because the author’s use of describing speech has made it clear.

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