“Keep Attribution Simple,”
By eliminating excessive synonyms for
your writing, you can unlock the door to clearer prose,
stronger characters, and more narrative power.
Louis E. Catron
You’ve likely been advised that “
said” is perfectly adequate attribution for dialogue in novels
and short stories, and you’ve probably heard that writers shouldn’t
labor to find such synonyms as
uttered, pronounced, responded, or
retorted. Substitutions for
“said” can interrupt the
story’s flow by causing the reader to hiccup mentally while trying
to figure out how the synonyms pertain to the dialogue.
Your mentor may have told you they can be so awkward that
they draw attention to themselves, and—worse—the synonyms can get
downright hilarious, thereby demolishing a story’s (and the author’s)
We writers, however, get a lot of sensible recommendations that sometimes
don’t quite penetrate. Perhaps
because we have so many other, larger concerns when writing, we may
ignore the “said” advice
from time to time.
Editors, contest judges, and teachers say they read many otherwise
interesting stories, but the synonym syndrome—the dreaded S.S.—makes
the pieces so unacceptable that a critical reader gives up after the
second or third unwarranted synonym for
Those editors stop reading because the S.S. disease is a symptom of
lazy and flabby writing or, worse, a misguided belief that highfalutin
substitutions add color and pizzazz.
They don’t. Prose
with excessive substitutions for
“said” dies far short of its potential, robbing readers—and the
writer—of the chance for character development, narrative tension,
With that, um, said, let’s examine the problem so you’ll know how
to spot flaws in your own stories.
First, in the sidebar to the right we’ll look at an example of the
“said” synonym gone berserk.
The citations are taken from an actual novel.
Honest! I know
you’ll think I must be making it up, but this really did get published.
No, not a vanity press.
A real, honest-to-god publishing house.
After looking at those quotations, we’ll turn to basic guidelines for “said.”
“SOME BASIC GUIDELINES,” HE OFFERED.
What are we to make of those examples?
What can we conclude about our own writing?
First, remember that “said”
Likely you’ve read detective stories about a mysterious killer who
dresses like a meter reader or someone delivering the mail to get
access to the victim despite the presence of bodyguards.
In such a familiar costume, the killer’s comings and goings
just aren’t noticed. Familiarity
That’s the way “said” works
in dialogue: The reader simply
doesn’t notice the word. This
loyal worker does its job neatly, efficiently, quietly.
Like a good actor, the invisible
“said” supports the primary lead but never calls attention to
itself. Synonyms, however,
are like a circus clown with an outlandish red nose, screaming for
attention. Upstaging the lead
is no virtue.
An excellent rule of thumb is simple:
Use “said” unless
there’s a powerful demand for a synonym.
Attribution of quotations isn’t necessary if the sense is clear.
If you’re worrying that you’re using
“said” too often, instead of seeking synonyms ask yourself if
the sense would be clear, and the rhythm improved, without attribution.
One identification of the character in the section usually is
adequate. Here’s an example:
John smiled at Beth as he picked up the newspaper and folded it in
quarters, never taking his eyes from her face, smiling and smiling,
until he had the paper in a small bundle.
He pointed to the column on top of the packet.
“Ann Landers printed my letter.”
Beth frowned, squinting at him.
“And she made a most interesting observation about you.”
“I can’t believe that you actually wrote. . . .”
“Yup. She calls you a ‘psychological
deviate.” Want to hear it?”
“I’m thinking of having this laminated and framed.
Put it up on the bedroom wall over your pillow.
Let me read it to you.”
“I’m warning you, buddy. . . .”
In the above example, insert “said”
or synonyms (“he threatened
ominously” or “Beth uttered
despondently”) and see if you actually need them.
After all, do you have any problem knowing who’s speaking?
If the sense is clear, you don’t need “said.”
Using substitutions for “said” encourages you to tell, instead of
That’s an unhappy choice.
“I’m going,” Will observed
“I’m going!!” Will commented warmly.
“I’m going?” Will pronounced happily.
“I am going,” Will uttered
These are convenient devices for the writer, but they aren’t effective.
The “said” substitutions
stop the writer from writing dialogue that shows the character acting
angrily, warmly, happily, or sarcastically.
Better, for example, might be something like this for
Will threw the book on the coffee table.
It skittered across the marble top, knocking the vase off on
the floor. The glass shards
flew over the carpet. “Damn
it, I’ve had it!” He went
to the door quickly, shoving her out of the way.
Showing, instead of telling, can be more effective.
The synonym syndrome begets other bad writing habits.
Once a writer accepts the idea of substituting words for “said,” then
more and more synonyms slither in.
Then we’ll see something like this:
John got into the car. “Goodbye,
Sally,” he commented wryly.
He stepped on the gas. The
four-wheeled conveyance roared down the street.
A penchant for synonyms leads to all sorts of awkwardness.
What’s wrong with repeating the simple, invisible “car”?
“THEN THERE ARE THE TOM SWIFTIES,” HE SAID SPEEDILY.
You know the famous Tom Swifties—a sentence where a description of the
manner of saying refers punningly to quoted matter.
“I commanded a group of ships for a week,” Tom said fleetingly.
“I really love hot dogs,” said Tom frankly.
“Drop your gun!” said Tom disarmingly.
“I'll never put my hand in the lion's den again,” said Tom
offhandedly. “I bought Boardwalk
early in the game,” Tom said, monopolizing the conversation.
The Tom Swifties are derived from the series of boyhood adventure books
developed by Edward Stratemeyer, who also was involved in other series
like the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy
Drew—so many books that he set up a syndicate of ghost writers to grind
out books according to his specifications.
The Tom Swift books’ title page credited Victor Appleton,
Jr. While the Tom Swift books
don’t have puns like those above, the characters only rarely simply
“say” something. Instead,
the dialogue is full of attributions like angrily, dejectedly, with
enthusiasm, and so forth.
So Stratemeyer-Appleton are known not for their books but for the
Surely that’s reason enough to avoid the “said substitution syndrome”!
None of us want fame at that cost!
“ALL’S SAID AND DONE,” HE PRONOUNCED WITH FINALITY.
As these examples show, “said”
is a fine, utilitarian, perfectly expressive word.
For the reader, “said”
blends into the woodwork of the story, barely noticeable.
That’s in sharp contrast to the synonyms’ brilliant purple
that hurt the eye and boggle the imagination.
For the writer, using “said”
saves energy. Instead of
wasting creativity on developing synonyms that try to tell what the
characters are thinking, we can divert that energy to improving the
process of showing.
Eliminating excessive “saids”
and those synonyms can begin in either the initial stage of creation,
or when you return to your work for editing.
Either way, I think you’ll find that proper
“said” use is like a tiny key opening a massive door.
It forces you to write with more force, description, and
“And that’s the end of that,” he concluded with finality.
Louis E. Catron (http://faculty.wm.edu/lecatr/
) is a prize-winning professor at the College of William and Mary
where he teaches highly regarded writing courses.
He’s an author of plays and articles, as well as such books
as The Elements of Playwriting (Macmillan), Playwriting:
Writing, Producing, and Selling Your Play (Waveland Press),
and The Power of One: The
Solo Play for Playwrights, Actors, and Directors (Heinemann).
He has published articles in magazines such as The Writer
and Writer’s Digest.
1 In somewhat different form, this article was first published in Writers Digest, March, 1991. Used by permission. Copyright ©, 2001, Louis E. Catron.
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