Originally written by sinaddict
, edited by herowlness
There's really no excuse for bad spelling with the advent of the spell-check, and most grammar problems can be solved with grammar checker in Microsoft word processors.
Not only do grammar and spelling mistakes distract readers from your story, they look incredibly amateurish. We all learn the basic rules of the English language by sixth or seventh grade. Understandably, those who have learned English as a second language may have a bit more difficulty picking up the intricacies of the language, but this is an excellent example of where having a beta that is strong in grammar and spelling can really be an asset to your writing.
By no means is this article supposed to be a course in grammar or anything; it's simply a reminder of the basic rules that you'll probably need to know at some point in your life, particularly if you want your story to be widely read and recommended. After all, nothing gets me hitting the back button on my browser quicker than seeing a plethora of spelling and grammar errors within the first paragraph or two of the fic.
The article is broken up into the following sections to keep this page shorter, and to give you a chance to brush up on whatever you're having problems with, without making you search through one really long page for it.01. CAPITALIZATION
Unless you're talking about e.e. cummings, always capitalize the first letter of a character's first and/or last name. You always capitalize the first letter of the first word of a new sentence, and you always capitalize the first letter of the proper names of places, too.
Joe walked down the street to Dairy Queen to meet Beth. They looked around for their friends before ordering.
You also capitalize the first letter of the first word after quotation marks.
"We have decided to go on a vacation," Meg gestured to herself and Simon. "Florida is nice this time of year."
Never capitalize every other letter when you're writing your story (TyPiNg LiKe ThIs) or write your story in entirely capital letters (TYPING LIKE THIS). It's very hard for the reader to read, and he or she will more than likely give up.
Conversely, don't skip capitalizing altogether (typing like this), as it's makes the reader work harder to determine where your sentences are ending, whether a certain word is actually intended to be the character's name, etc. 02. ABBREVIATIONS AND SYMBOLS
Never use symbols instead of words in your fanfic. It looks messy and distracting. The only time it would be appropriate would if it were a part of a proper noun, such as "Ben & Jerry's."
When it comes to symbols, it is better to spell them out, such as "fifteen percent," "three dollars," or "Mikey and Amanda."
Don't use online abbreviations in your character's dialogue. No one in real life ever says, "I gtg. TTYL.", so why make your character say it?
Don't use actual numbers instead of their worded counterparts, unless the worded version is too difficult to read; for example, three million nine-hundred forty-eight thousand four-hundred sixty-seven. A safe measuring tool for this is that if the number takes four or more words to write out, then you should use the numbers.
[Please note that the number rule above applies only to fiction writing. If you're writing research or term papers, there are different rules about how to write numbers.]
Also, if you need to write a fraction or mixed number in your story, always use the words. In HTML, you'd need to use superscript and subscript to achieve the numbered version of one-half, which can cause problems with coding your story wherever you're planning to post it. More often than not, the browser will make something else up, and your reader won't have any idea you were trying to get, for example, the numeric format of two-thirds on the page.
Typing the numbers as 1/2 or 1/3 doesn't work, either. It looks ghastly to most people, and pulls readers out of your story because it'll take them a few seconds to process that you meant half, or a third.
Bob & Joe walked 2 the gym hoping to see 28 1/2 year old Dana Barry w/o her usual dressy clothes on. When Joe didn't see her right away, he turned to Bob and said, "I gtg. I'll ttys."
The example above disregards all these rules. Notice how much harder it is to read? Were you able to immerse yourself in the story and feel like you were there? If you could, you're a much more imaginative person than I.
Some abbreviations are acceptable in fanfic, like "etc." instead "et cetera", and "a.m." or "p.m.". If you would abbreviate a word on a term paper or report for your boss, then you'd be safe abbreviating it in your fanfic.03. TENSE SHIFTS
Most everyone knows the three tense forms. (If you don't, you shouldn't be writing fanfic without a beta who can help improve your grammar and spelling.) The three basic tenses are past, present, and future tense. Verb tenses can be either simple or perfect, but since this isn't a huge issue with fanfic, we'll use the simple form, and not worry about perfect form.
Also, for all intents and purposes, ignore progressive form (using the word "we" before any verb) and assume emphatic form ("he narrowed his eyes", rather than "we saw him narrow his eyes").Past Tense (Was, Were)
Laura twirled the small flower between her fingers and sighed. She knew that Henry hadn't meant it to be a romantic gift, but for some reason she wished he had.Present Tense (Am, Are, Is)
Laura twirls the small flower between her fingers and sighs. She knows that Henry doesn't mean it to be a romantic gift, but for some reason she wishes he does.Future Tense (Will)
Laura will twirl the small flower between her fingers and will sigh. She will know that Henry will not mean it to be a romantic gift, but for some reason she will wish he will have meant it that way.
Your story should probably be told with past tense verbs because it is the easiest form to maintain. It's what most writers begin writing with before they know much about tenses. This isn't to say that you must set your story in the past. Your story can be set in the future and use past tense verbs, as the following example does.
Kate sighed and waited for the familiar 2021 Mercedes-Benz to slide smoothly down the street and roll to a stop at the curb in front of her.
If you'd like to tell your story in present tense, just remember that it can come off stilted if it's not done right. Have someone read over your work and ask them if they noticed that you were writing in the present tense. If they answered that they did notice, then it's not working and you either need to edit to make it a bit more seamless or try another tense. If they didn't notice, you're good to go.
Future tense is a generally a no-no. It's very hard to write, and even harder for the reader to process. It's hard for readers to sink themselves into a story when they keep noticing the verb tense, and future tense tends to stand out – generally because of the extra word ("will") before every verb.
Remember that dialogue is written in present tense regardless of whether you're using past tense for the story because it was present tense when the character said it.
Never shift verb tense in your story. Pick a form and stay with it, otherwise you will end up confusing your readers. Exceptions could be made to set off flashbacks or dream sequences or something of that nature; however, this should generally be avoided unless you are experienced with tenses and have a good beta to double check your use of tenses.04. PUNCTUATIONa. PUNCTUATION: Ending Sentences
Adding seven exclamation points after your sentence does not add any more emphasis. They carry the same amount of weight that one exclamation point would, but they look immature and annoy the living hell out of most people.
The same goes for question marks. Only use one.
In the rare instance you need to use both, like for a rhetorical exclamation (i.e. Weird much?!), you only need to use one of each. Writing "Weird much???!!!" does not look better, and it doesn't add anything to your sentence.
If you're adding punctuation because you want to emphasize something, try breaking up your paragraphs so that the sentence that needs emphasis is its own paragraph, surrounded by chunkier description paragraphs. This will make it stand out more.
The opposite of overuse of punctuation is not using *any* punctuation. I'm not sure which is worse, but I'd probably guess the latter.
Questions always end with question marks. Put periods at the end of all your sentences that aren't questions. If you feel the need to add an exclamation point somewhere, do so.
Now, for a few simple rules on things that are often done wrong.Indirect Questions
: Always end an indirect question with a period.
Incorrect: Ryan suspiciously asked where Tara's purse was.
Correct: Ryan suspiciously asked where Tara's purse was.Ending on Abbreviations
: If the last word of the sentence ends in a period, don't add another period.
Incorrect: Jake did not like traveling to Washington, D.C..
Correct: Jake did not like traveling to Washington, D.C.Statements and Questions
: When your sentence is half-statement and half-question, end with a question mark.
Incorrect: Sam was lying about not wanting Iris anymore, wasn't he.
Correct: Sam was lying about not wanting Iris anymore, wasn't he?Use Exclamation Points Sparingly
: If you must use exclamation points, use them in your dialogue the majority of the time, and try to keep them out of your narrative as often as possible, as they tend to lose effectiveness if they're used every other sentence.b. PUNCTUATION: Commas and Semicolons
Commas are the most abused punctuation mark I see in fanfic. The old adage to add commas where you would pause when speaking is only true when you're writing dialogue. People pause during strange places when they're speaking. Just because your Great Uncle Bob always pauses after saying the word "strange" doesn't make it a rule.
Here are some tips on where to place commas.Words in Word Groups:
To avoid confusion, separate items of a list or words that are grouped together with commas. For example:
Incorrect: When Jane got home she was going to relax in the sauna take a warm bath and go to bed early.
Correct: When Jane got home, she was going to relax in the sauna, take a warm bath, and go to bed early.Separating Adjectives:
If the word "and" can be inserted between two adjectives and still make sense, add a comma after the first adjective. For example:
The tall, muscled Luke easily hefted Sandra's two suitcases up and carried them in for her.
The tall and muscled Luke easily hefted Sandra's two suitcases up and carried them in for her.Separating Adjectives Ending in -ly:
If an adjective ending in -ly is placed next to another adjective, separate them with a comma. To test if a word ending in -ly is an adjective, place it next to your noun and see if it still makes sense. If it does, it's an adjective. For example:
Incorrect: Neal had been a lonely sullen boy when his father first left. He was forced into the role of man of the house early when his brother left, leaving him with a prematurely, cynical outlook on life.
Correct: Neal had been a lonely, sullen boy when his father first left. He was forced into the role of man of the house early when his brother left, leaving him with a prematurely cynical outlook on life.
The comma is placed next to the wrong -ly word. "Neal had been a lonely boy" makes sense, while "leaving him with a prematurely perspective" does not.Setting Off Names and Titles:
When a character is addressed by name or title in the middle of a sentence, place commas before and after the character's name or title. For example:
"As you wish, Alison, I'll leave you alone," Paul said sadly.
When a character is addressed by name or title at the beginning of a sentence, place a comma after the character's name or title. For example:
"Alison, I'll leave you alone," Paul said sadly.
When a character is addressed by name or title at the end of a sentence, place a comma before the character's name or title. For example:
"I'll leave you alone, Alison."Compound Sentences:
Any time you join two otherwise-complete sentences together with the conjunction "or", "nor", "for", "but", or "and", you should put a comma before the conjunction. For example:
Michelle glared at Kyle with extreme annoyance, but he merely gave her a charming grin in return.Setting Off Interruptions:
If there's something you want to include in your sentence that interrupts the flow of the sentence, place commas before and after the interruption. For example:
Lana was, as everyone probably noticed, extremely nervous about being confronted by Mouse.
Edward, unable to even look at Mary after learning of her lies, turned and walked away without another word.Weak clauses:
Use a comma to separate a weak clause from a stronger clause. For example:
When Kelly was ready to give up on Mark, Rick was confident she would look at him.
If Grace needed his help, Dan intended to be there.
If you have a strong clause first, you don't need to use commas.
Dan intended to be there if Grace needed help.
Rick was confident Kelly would look at him when she was ready to give up on Mark.Dialogue:
Use commas to introduce or interrupt dialogue. For example:
Incorrect: Jessica turned to him and said "I missed you" before jogging up the stairs.
Correct: Jessica turned to him and said, "I missed you," before jogging up the stairs.
Also Correct: "You know," Jessica turned to him, "I missed you."Separating Statements From Questions:
Use commas to separate a statement from a question in the same sentence. For example:
I can go, can't I?
He was definitely wrong, wasn't he?Offsetting Non-essential Description:
If a character or other noun has been sufficiently identified, any additional description in the sentence isn't essential and should be offset with commas. For example:
Duncan, Veronica's first love, doesn’t remember the day his sister died.
Since we already know that Duncan was Veronica's first love, adding that into your sentence after identifying him as Duncan isn't essential, so you need to add the commas.
On the other hand, if the character isn't identified, you don't offset the description with commas. For example:
Veronica's first love doesn't remember the day his sister died.Comma Splices:
A comma splice is when you are using commas where you should be using semicolons or periods. Essentially, a comma splice is using a comma to connect two complete sentences, and is often an indication of run-on sentences. The following is a comma splice:
Tom hated Frank, ever since Frank caused the car accident that broke his leg, he felt a smoldering rage towards him.
There are several ways to fix this problem. The first is to simply separate the two independent clause into two separate sentences.
Tom hated Frank. Ever since Frank caused the car accident that broke his leg, he felt a smoldering rage towards him.
Or, you could turn the two clauses into a compound sentence using a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for). With some compound sentences, this doesn't turn out sounding right, like the below example. Try reading it aloud to make sure it doesn't interrupt the flow of your story.
Tom hated Frank, for ever since Frank caused the car accident that broke his leg, he felt a smoldering rage towards him.
You can also separate independent clauses using a semicolon, like the following example:
Tom hated Frank; ever since Frank caused the car accident that broke his leg, he felt a smoldering rage towards him.
Semicolons are also used to separate items in a list that are already using commas, like the following:
Cindy planned to go to Castleton, Maine; New York City, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts.c. PUNCTUATION: Parentheses and Asides
A parenthetical aside is where the author inserts information into the story using parenthesis. Usually, in fanfic this is to insert the author's opinions into the story, or to dump information that we already know.
Later, Madison (WHORE) tried to seduce Logan because she didn't want Veronica to be happy.
Logan was happy when he heard that Veronica had been accepted to Stanford. (While he would miss her when she went away to school, he knew that she'd dreamed of going to Stanford for years.)
Lilly (a compulsive flirt even though she's dating Logan) could never refuse the attentions of an attractive male.
Don't do this. All of the information in parentheses in the examples above should be removed. It's generally understood that Logan wants Veronica to be happy – even if it's not with him, and that Lilly enjoys being the center of attention – male or otherwise. Expect that anyone reading Veronica Mars fanfic will have at least a passing knowledge of the show, and will therefore know all of this before they read your story.
Don't insert your opinions into a story using parenthetical asides. It not only looks amateurish, you're running the risk of turning away readers that might not have the same opinion. If you absolutely must tell us that you think Madison is a slut or Lynn is a neglectful mother, do it by showing us through their actions.
As a general rule, you should avoid using parenthesis in your writing - try to find other ways to work the information in.
Logan was happy when he heard that Veronica had been accepted to Stanford. (While he would miss her when she went away to school, he knew that she'd dreamed of going to Stanford for years.)
Try this instead:
Logan was happy when he heard Veronica had been accepted to Stanford. Even though he would miss her, he knew that going to Stanford was something she'd dreamed of for years.d. PUNCTUATION: Ellipses and Dashes
Ellipses are often overused in fanfic, and more often than not, they're used incorrectly. An ellipse is used to indicate missing words. That's it.
"But I thought that you were..." Kylie trailed off as she glanced from Fred to his twin brother Jed.
Or, although it's much less common and more awkward, you can use a question that's partially omitted:
"Can you tell me where to find...?" Paula stopped as she noticed the stranger across the street, who looked remarkably like her brother; or rather, the photograph she had seen of her brother.
Don't use ellipses to indicate pauses in your dialogue or indicate fragmented thoughts, unless there is absolutely no other way you cam do it. This is quite possibly the most-often made mistake in fanfic, and not just Veronica Mars
Incorrect: "Dad...listen to me."
Also Incorrect: No... that couldn't be possible... not her...
Correct: "Dad, listen to me."
Also Correct: No, that couldn't be possible. Not her.
If you must use ellipses to indicate pauses in dialogue, do it sparingly. If your story resembles the example below, you might want to think about rewriting.
It wasn't possible... it couldn't be possible... Sarah thought to herself. Liam ... he couldn't just be... using her.
Dashes are used to indicate interrupted ideas, add emphasis to an explanatory idea, or nonessential elements of a sentence.
Kassie would just have to find Rob -- No, that wasn't right. She meant Ben. Really.
To some people, Dan's behavior seemed chauvinistic--misogynistic even.
Theo--unaware that Hannah was just outside the door--insistently informed Diana of all of the problems with Hannah's contributions to their group project.e. PUNCTUATION: Apostrophes and Hyphens
Generally, apostrophes are used incorrectly in contractions is when there is a typo and the word itself is misspelled (dind't) or when the apostrophe is missing altogether (dont).Contractions
: Place the apostrophe where you'd put the missing letter.
"I do not know what you are talking about," Tammy denied.
Is the same as:
"I don't know what you're talking about," Tammy denied.
The only place I see apostrophes commonly misused is when someone is trying to show possession by a group, and when people are unsure whether to add another 's' to a word that ends with the letter 's'.Possessive
: Use an apostrophe to show possession of something. Place the apostrophe before the 's' if it belongs to one person; if it belongs to two or more people, make the noun plural and then add an apostrophe.
Gina wrecked Ivy's wheelchair to keep her from escaping this conversation.
The boys' baseball team won the State Championship.Its vs. It's
: Remember that the word "it's" is a contraction for "it is". In showing possession of something, use "its".
Incorrect: The high school had it's own gym.
Also Incorrect: Its going to be a sunny day today.
Correct: The high school had its own gym.
Also Correct: It's going to be a sunny day today.
Hyphens are generally the most difficult punctuation, because even the "authorities" disagree on where to use them. The best bet to catch misused hyphens is to use the spelling and grammar check functions on your word processor, or look up any word you're unsure of in the dictionary.05. SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT
Eva were running down the street to catches Grant before Ian could puts his new plan into motion.
Doesn't that look atrocious and extremely hard to understand? In all writing, your subject needs to agree with your verb. Using the above example, "Eva", the subject, does not agree with the verb, "were". "Eva" is singular, while "were" is plural.
The basic rule for subject and verb agreement is this: if your subject is singular, then your verb will be singular; if your subject is plural, your verb will be plural.
So, how do you determine what's singular and what's plural?
Let's start with a simple example. You have the verbs "talk" and "talks", and you want to determine which is singular and plural. Think of the word "he" in your mind, which is a singular subject. Which makes more sense to follow, "talk" or "talks"?
"He talk" doesn't sound right, does it? So, you'd need to use "he talks", correct? (The answer to that question is yes. ;)
But what if you have more than one subject? Well, if you have two singular subjects connected by the conjunctions "or" or "nor", then you have to use a singular verb.
Neither Justin nor Rebecca was sympathetic to Tamara's tears.
"Justin" and "Rebecca" are both singular subjects, so you'd need to use the verb "was" rather than "were".
On the other hand, if you use the conjunction "and" to connect two singular subjects, you'd need to use the plural verb.
Both Justin and Rebecca were not sympathetic to Tamara's tears.
Because "Justin and Rebecca" are being treated as two subjects together, you need to use the plural "were" rather than "was".
So, what if you have a singular subject and a plural subject that you want to connect with "or" or "nor"? You put the plural subject last, and then use a plural verb.
Neither the book nor the magazines were put back in their proper place at the library;.
If you have a nonessential clause in your sentence separating your subject from your verb, ignore the clause when determining whether the subject is plural or singular.
Patty, with the help of her brothers, was throwing a birthday party for Eve.
If you take out the nonessential clause "with the help of her brothers", you're left with "Patty was throwing a birthday party for Eve", which makes sense in terms of agreement.
Remember that the pronouns each
, and somebody
Each of the girls was disappointed when her boyfriend wasn't named the Prom King.
When "either" or "neither" are subjects, they always take singular verbs.
Neither of them was answering the phone.
If you aren't sure about something, try reading it out loud to make sure that it sounds right and makes sense. Or if you have roommates that don't appreciate you reading aloud to them, the grammar check function on word processors will catch most (if not all) errors in subject and verb agreement. 06. RUN-ONS AND FRAGMENTS
In most writing, you'll want to try to avoid sentence fragments, which are essentially incomplete sentences. However, in fiction writing, they can be helpful in emphasizing certain ideas, as long as they are used in moderation and done correctly. This is the one area where you can ignore grammar check on your computer if you're sure that the fragment in question adds something to your story.
Kay's eyes widened as she realized that she had just thought about the words "love" and "Ray" in the same sentence, without the words "like a friend". She was definitely in trouble now.
"Kay?" Ray asked, his voice slightly lower than usual, with a husky quality she had never noticed before.
However, take note that if you do this too often, as with exclamation points, it tends to lose its power of emphasis.
Run-on sentences, on the other hand, are a big no-no unless they're in your dialogue and your character is prone to using them when nervous or something, like the following example.
"It's not what you think!" Victoria insisted in a panic. "I was just trying to get Sarah to talk to Yves so that she'd realize that you'd never cheat on her because I know you'd never cheat on her because you love her, and I just want you to be happy since that's all that matters!"
Now, the same sentence written in narrative form is much harder to follow and doesn't sound quite right:
It wasn't what he thought, Victoria panicked. She was just trying to get Sarah to talk to Yves so that Sarah'd realize that he'd never cheat on her because Victoria knew he'd never cheat on her because he loved her, and Victoria just wanted him to be happy since that's all that matters!
Most word processor grammar checks will catch both run-on sentences and fragments, but you may want to try reading your story out loud or sending it to a beta reader, too. They tend to catch things that even grammar check doesn't.07. QUOTING AND DIALOGUE
Unless you're planning on writing purely introspective, character thought pieces, then you'll need to know about quoting and dialogue rules at some point.
There are three basic ways to do dialogue, as shown in the following examples. The most obvious rule is that anything that the character directly says must be put in quotation marks.
"Charlie can never find out that I had a relationship with James," Emmy told herself.
Emmy told herself, "Charlie can never find out that I had a relationship with James."
"Charlie can never find out," Emmy told herself, "that I had a relationship with James."
If you have dialogue separated by a dialogue tag (such as "said") in the middle, you can do it one of two ways:
"If anyone finds out," Theresa wailed, "they'll hate me!"
"If anyone finds out," Theresa wailed. "They'll hate me!"
If you only have the character name and the dialogue tag (i.e. "Theresa wailed") between your quoted dialogue, you'll probably want to use a comma, like in the first example. Use a period, like the second example above if your sentence looks more like this one:
"If anyone finds out," Theresa wailed helplessly, her bottom lip quivering and tears spilling from her eyes. "They'll hate me!"
Because what follows the first dialogue could stand on its own as a sentence, it's more streamlined to leave the second set of dialogue as its own sentence.
Here's where most people tend to get mixed up: if your character's dialogue ends in a question mark or exclamation point, and you want to attach a dialogue tag afterward, don't capitalize the first letter of the dialogue tag unless it's a character's name. For example:
"If anyone finds out, they'll hate me!" wailed Theresa.
Closing punctuation marks always go on the inside of the quotation marks.
Don't write your dialogue in the following form unless you're writing a script. (The reasons why you shouldn't write in script form will be saved for another article.)
Timmy: Today will be a good day.
This doesn't tell us much other than what Timmy is saying. Try this instead:
"Today will be a good day," Timmy said with a smile as he evaluated the crowd before him.08. "SAID" AND DIALOGUE TAGS
There are two different schools of thought when it comes to using dialogue tags – one which encourages the continued use of he said / she said, and the other which encourages the use of other, similar verbs.sinaddict
, who wrote this article originally (before I did some adapting to make it fit my new fandom), favors the former while I favor the latter. So – in the interest of completeness – I'm going to present both arguments/situations to you. Neither way is wrong, necessarily, and whatever works best for you is generally okay – so long as you watch out for the hazards outlined in the section to come.In favor of "said"
While you're writing, it may seem repetitive to tag every piece of dialogue you write with "Meghan said" or "said Bert". However, the word "said" is invisible to your readers. Just as readers don't notice punctuation unless it's flawed, they tend to take in the word "said" the same way they only subconsciously notice grammar and punctuation.
Think of it this way: have you ever been reading a story and thought to yourself, "Gee, this author sure uses the word 'the' a lot"? Of course not, because 'the' is so commonly used that it has become invisible to the reader.
The only time that readers will notice the word 'said' in your story is if you add an abundance of adverbs to it ("she said angrily", "she said enviously"), or if you unintentionally use Tom Swifties ("We'll have to amputate," the doctor said disarmingly).
In general, the word "said" won't get repetitious unless you have pages and pages of dialogue where everything is "he said" or "she said". In this case, you might want to consider adding bits of details and action to your scene.
If you're truly concerned about overusing the word "said" in your fanfic, try replacing dialogue tags with action verbs and details. There are several ways to add bits of detail or actions to the following sentence.
"I missed you," Gwen said.
The first would be to add some details about Gwen's surroundings.
"I missed you," Gwen studied the plush beige carpeting so that she wouldn't have to look at him while she admitted it.
The next would be to replace said with verbs that describe what Gwen is doing while she speaks.
"I missed you," Gwen set the phone down and studied the plush beige carpeting so that she wouldn't have to look at him while she admitted it.
Or, you could combine Gwen's thoughts and actions to replace the dialogue tag.
"I missed you," Gwen set the phone down and studied the plush beige carpeting so that she wouldn't have to look at him while she admitted it; looking at him would have confirmed her fears that he hadn't thought of her once while he was away.In favor of the use of diverse verbs
I'd like to start by fully endorsing the use of action verbs and details into your dialogue tags, as suggested in the latter part of the previous section. It's a great way to add in some extra description and show (rather than tell) your reader what your character is thinking.
It's for that same reason that I prefer using a variety of verbs in my dialogue tags (yes, including "said" on occasion). Not that "said" doesn't work as a verb or that I have a different preferred verb. I just think that dialogue tags are an opportunity to help the reader visualize the scene and perhaps even imagine the sound of the words in their own ears.
More to the point, "said" isn't very descriptive.
There are any number of verbs that can be used, and the list that follows is hardly all-inclusive. Still, as you read over this incomplete list of verbs, think about what a given verb means to you and how you would interpret its use in the context of a story.
Verbs: muttered, shouted, yelled, cried, bit out, whispered, announced, persisted, countered, advised, offered, stated, growled, complained, whined, agreed
For example, if you have one character saying, "I love you" in your fic, each of those verbs gives a different context to that statement.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you," she muttered.
"I love you," she cried.
"I love you," she announced.
"I love you," she agreed.
"Muttered," to me, implies that the words were not easy to say and that she was essentially coerced into saying them. "Cried" indicates that the character is very emotional – perhaps she was afraid of losing her love. "Announced" might mean that she is telling not just the person in question but a larger audience, making it clear that the object of her affection is no longer available. "Agreed" could simply be an affirmation of love.
Not that there aren't other possible explanations or interpretations of these selected verbs, but with the use of additional action verbs and details (as well as context for the dialogue), I think that the use of varied verbs can give your storytelling even greater impact.
Of course, there is still a place for "he said / she said" in such pieces. Not all dialogue in a given tale is likely to be emotionally charged or in need of great amounts of description. "Said" can, and probably should, still be used at least occasionally in almost all fics. It's a good standby for dialogue tags, and there's nothing wrong with it.
And if you choose to spice up your dialogue tags by including more than just said, make sure that you don't just use the same verb (i.e. "whispered") over and over again. "Whispered" stands out a lot more in text than said does, and word repetition is a pet peeve of a number of readers. (or, well, at least me)
If you can't think of another verb to use, a thesaurus
may come in pretty handy.
If you have any questions or need clarification, feel free to ask.
Still to come? Lesson number nine - Homonyms and misused words. Hoo boy, do I have a whole slew of them to write up.
A lot, Allot
A part, Apart
A side, Aside
Fair, Fare, to Fare
It's, Its (yes, these were already covered in this article, but they are misused so frequently that I think it bears repeating)
Know, No, Now
Off, Off of
Their, There, They're
Thorough, Though, Through
Threw, Through, Thru
To, Too, Two