Nominations for the Clitorides are still open. Nominate your favourites [ X Dismiss ]
Home « Forum « Author Hangout

Forum: Author Hangout

"speaking softly" questions about its use


English is not my native language so I chew and second- and third-guess on the use/overuse or wrong use of some phrases in my WIP Novel.

I have noticed, that I use "xyz spoke softly" a couple of times and fear that sometimes the correct meaning and setting of the current act is not represented.

Also there is a character that is innately using a more soft articulation that worsens the issue I have.

So I have 4 or more different approaches to display "spoke softly" in the novel.

1. the character that has always a more soft speaking approach. How much should I remind the readers that this character is using a soft articulation? Should I rather more prominently display the differences when he is not speaking softly?

2. Speaking softly to get across an emphatic response to another character. So an emotional response.

3. Speaking softly to not bother another character. Different from whispering.

4. Trying to diffuse a situation. Not something like "held at gunpoint". just some emotional diffusing or apologizing.

Should I mix it up better, use other phrases, or should I let the setting itself speak for the correct meaning?

In some Novels I have read and that overused the phrase, I had trouble after awhile to not think that they always speak softly. And when there is a long dialog going on and no other change of the kind of dialog written into it, when does the "spoken softly" dialog end? The next sentence? the whole dialog?


In the first case I would say that how often you would remind the readers that a character always has a soft spoken approach would depend on the story, and how often that character appears.

In some stories you can get away with doing that a more than others. Stories that have many scenes where the soft spoken character (SSC) meets new people and is misjudged because of his habit of speaking softly can lend themselves to pointing that out more than one that only includes scenes with the SSC and their circle of friends.

When a character starts speaking a certain way in a dialogue, my guess that they would continue the same way unless the text specifically mentions that they change. This changed status would also stay unless it specifically changes.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer


Stories that have many scenes where the soft spoken character (SSC) meets new people and is misjudged because of his habit of speaking softly can lend themselves to pointing that out more than one that only includes scenes with the SSC and their circle of friends.

This is an excellent point. While I'd say keep a couple similar phrases handy so you can interchange them, scenes like this where you can express it in dialogue go a long ways in allieviating it. Having a new character ask "Excuse me" while leaning forwards speaks volume. Especially if they have to repeat themselves. Also, rather than simply saying "spoke slowly" for emotional scenes, I'd play up the exceptions, such as:

"You need to watch what you say," she said, her voice more still and disturbing than her normally quiet tone.

In this case, you're not stating that she's still speaking quietly, you're emphasizing that she's doing it for effect, in a "don't you dare fuck with me" tone that mothers sometimes use (those that don't simply scream at their kids, that is).

My ex and my daughter are prime examples. Whenever my ex would drop her voice and speak in an almost whispering tone, the kids knew to back off, because all hell was about to break out if they continued to push. However, my daughter went into the other direction. She screams at her kids so much that the kids all scream at each other to be heard over her screaming—which only causes her to scream all the louder. I can't stand to be in their house for long as a result, especially since my ex and I are both quiet.

By the way, with my ex, she never had to prove herself, because whenever she spoke quietly (don't forget to mention "measured tone") the kids never pushed enough to discover what she'd do.

Switch Blayde


If you establish the trait of the character to be soft-spoken, you don't have to keep mentioning it. You can reinforce it by the actions of others she's talking to (e.g., have them ask her to repeat what she said because they didn't hear her, have them lean in to hear her, have another character mention she always speaks softly, if she ever yells mention how unusual that is, etc.)

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Generally, I'd treat it like a visual description. When you first introduce the character, specify how soft-spoken she is, if it's essential, reemphasize it as Switch suggests, then get on with the story. But, while readers like to superimpose their own ideas of a characters' looks, if there's something specific about it that's essential, you've got to remind readers, so it doesn't slip their mind.

You don't need to pound it into their heads, but again, how new characters ask her to repeat things, or when other characters get together without her, have them made comments about how hard it is hearing her or getting her to speak up. Again, you simply want to remind readers, not beat them over the head with it (which is what you're proposing by continually stating "she said quietly").

Capt. Zapp

@Switch Blayde

Sounds like Cadet/Officer Hooks from the 'Police Academy' movies. "Don't move, Dirtbag!"

Ross at Play

I fear (from the way you worded your original post) you may be over-reliant on describing the manner of speaking in telling your story.
You described four situations when characters speak softly and one character who always does so.
You do not need to say someone spoke softly every time they do. That fact is not really important to readers - it's their emotional state or other reasons for choosing to speak softly that you need to convey, and there are many other gestures and actions you can use to convey those things.
* * *
Also, I support what SB and CW said about the character who always speaks softly: establish the trait early on and then only occasional reminders.

Ernest Bywater


When I read something like - Fred spoke softly to Joan .... - I read that as someone who is speaking well below their normal speaking voice but slightly above a whisper.

When I read something like - Fred was soft spoken ... - I read that as someone whose normal speaking voice is much softer and quieter than most people's speaking voice.

One is a qualifier and the other is a modifier of how they speak.


Thank you all for your responses. It helps immensely.

Back to Top