Louis E. Catron:  "Keep Attribution Simple" article.

This is a copy of an article that appears
in Holly's Vision.  There's a link to her site
at the bottom of the page.

Please visit my home page for descriptions of,
and links to, the many other pages on my site. 


“Keep Attribution Simple,” He…

retorted, uttered, commented, cried, dared, voiced,

barked, returned, greeted , demanded, snapped,

observed, and muttered—but…

Seldom Said.

By eliminating excessive synonyms for “said” from

your writing, you can unlock the door to clearer prose,

stronger characters, and more narrative power. 1

by

Louis E. Catron 
© 2002, 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) credibility.   

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.

We shouldn’t.

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 “said.”

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, and action.

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.   Amazing.   

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” is invisible.

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 breeds acceptance. 

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.  “Say what?”

“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?”

“No.”

“You should.”

“Shut up!”

“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 show.

That’s an unhappy choice.
Let’s look at an innocuous line for an example.  Assume the character is leaving the room.   “I’m leaving,” Will said.   The line is moderately effective but it doesn’t have much juice.  So the writer decides to jazz it up with synonyms and typographical devices:

I’m going,” Will observed angrily.

“I’m going!!” Will commented warmly.

“I’m going?” Will pronounced happily.

“I am going,” Will uttered sarcastically.

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 “observed angrily:”

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.   “I’m going!”

 

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 resulting Swifties.

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 accuracy.

“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.

 

“A SIDEBAR?” HE CRIED.

The following examples are drawn exactly word-for-word from a published novel, but out of consideration for the author, editor, and publisher we won’t identify it.   As you read each example, improve it by revising.   Then glance at my suggested changes and see what you think.

“Welcome to Key West, Ensign!” greeted the officer warmly.

“Welcome” itself is a greeting, so there’s no need to write “greeted the officer.”  Further, here’s an example how focus on the synonym can lead to a reversal and incorrect usage.  It’s one thing to write, “The officer greeted the ensign,” but that’s quite a different concept from “greeted the officer.”  Then there’s a question about using “warmly.”  Doesn’t the use of title of “ensign” decrease the warmth of the greeting?   After all, if you greet your favorite doctor in a “warm” manner, do you say, “Welcome, Doctor,” or would you say, “Welcome, Sally”?  All in all, how about a revision like this:   “Welcome to Key West, pal!”  The officer gave him a mock hit on the shoulder.

Continuing to gaze out the window as the plane taxied to the gate area, the Marine commented, “That’s some collection of military hardware. . . .”

We’re left wondering how the Marine feels about the military equipment he sees—er, “gazes” at.  One revision might get to that point.  The Marine shook his head grimly as he looked out the window.   “Some collection of military hardware.   Ever wonder how much it costs  just to turn on those engines?”  Note, by the way, that this identifies the speaker without “said” or any of those synonyms.

“What’s the matter, isn’t my favorite nephew glad to see me?” returned Lieutenant Commander Peter Anderson, who took his nephew’s hand in his own and then hugged him as well.”

Is Anderson returning a serve?   Returning to the base?   No, “returned” here simply means “said.”  Note, too, that this writing problem seems to open the door for others to slip in:  there is the unfortunate repetition of “nephew,” and that last phrase trips over pronouns.  Dividing that passage into several sentences might help.   “Hey, what’s this?  Isn’t my favorite nephew glad to see me?”  Lieutenant Commander Peter Anderson grinned as he hugged [Name].

Ted instinctively stiffened and replied after initiating a crisp salute.  “Thank you, sir.”

Victims of the “said substitution syndrome” can fall prey to verbosity.  Perfectly adequate is Ted saluted.   “Thank you, sir.”  There’s no need for instincts or initiating, and surely we all know that in the military “stiffening” is part of a proper salute.

“I’ve heard worse,” retorted the young ensign lightly.

Instead of saying “lightly,” why not write a sentence that shows a light-hearted response?  Furthermore, do you see possibly mutually contradictory terms here?   After all, how often do people “retort lightly?”   Listen to real-life retorts.   Aren’t they more like cannon shots than “light” comments?   Note the synonym syndrome’s pernicious expanding influence:   Not only does the novelist use substitutes for “ said,” he decides to use synonyms for names—here, the “young ensign.”  Hey, military ranks being what they are, is he likely to be an old ensign?  Finally, just what’s wrong with simply using the guy’s name?

“Of course I am,” retorted the red-faced ensign.

“Retorted” implies a vigorous reply, not a red-faced, embarrassed, stumbling response.  Plain, ordinary “said” would have avoided the problem.   Even better would be a speech or action that showed embarrassment.

“How’s your mother and sister?” quizzed the senior Anderson as he climbed behind the wheel.

The question is stated clearly and doesn’t need “quizzed” for emphasis.  Further, this example shows how a search for synonyms can lead to incorrect use of words:  “quiz” implies more meaningful questions than this sentence expresses.  Finally, here’s a case of “loading on” too much in a single sentence, false linkage that strains to link the two separate actions of asking a question and climbing behind the wheel.   The question is the important portion of the whole, but it is weakened by that awkward linkage.   One possible revision would be, Anderson grunted as he wedged himself behind the wheel and fumbled for the ignition.  “How’s your mother and father?”   Can you think of other improvements?

Noting a seriousness in his uncle’s tone, Ted cautiously responded, “Are things really that bad, Uncle Pete?”

“Said” would suffice.  “Asked” might be appropriate.  Neither would be efficient, because the question is self-evident.  Another possibility is to enhance Ted’s characterization by showing his insight into his uncle.  Ted stared at the dark circles under his uncle’s eyes.   “You sound awfully dejected, Uncle Pete.    Are things really that bad?”   And we avoided “said” easily.

A thin, bright-eyed Hispanic stepped forward and alertly nodded.   “Ensign Adrian Avila at your service.”

Don’t look back at that quote above and see if you can remember the guy’s name.  Chances are you, like others asked to do the same, know that he “alertly nodded,” but have no idea of his name.   Why?  The immaterial synonym caught your eye and your mind wondered just how someone nods “alertly,” but the more significant name got lost.  Think of what would be gained by simply eliminating the “and alertly nodded.”

“And may I ask the exact nature of this target?” dared Ted Anderson.

“Dared”?  The flow stops; the reader’s attention is held, pivoted, reserved by that strange word.  Here’s one possible revision:  Ted told himself that ensigns shouldn’t ask questions of commanders, but he couldn’t stop.  “Just what is this target?”  The commander swiveled his head quickly to glare at Ted.  Ted quickly said, “Sir.”  How would you handle this?

“But that could very possibly be the opening shot of World War III!” observed the startled navigator.

Whew!  Let us fervently hope that any navigator will do more than merely “observe” actions that could start the next war! “Observed” here turns a serious statement into a comic mess.

There were more.  Many more.  On every page.   But let’s drop the curtain on the poor thing.     

 

 

Return to Back Issue's Home Page

Return to the current Issue of Vision



Louis Catron's Home Page
Books by 
Louis E. Catron
Best Web Sites
for Theatre
Copyright Law for Theatre
Great Sites for All Writers
Great Sites for Playwrights
Theatre Masks and .gifs
  Job Sites for Theatre people
Recommended 
Good 
Books & Films
for Theatre
What Theatre Majors Learn
for Non-Theatre Jobs
Stage Directions for Actors, Directors, Playwrights
Theatrical
Superstition and Saints
For Actors--
Your  Résumé
For Actors--
Your Website
For Actors--
Your Headshot

 

For Actors--
Audition Techniques
For Actors--
Great Books
 

My professional Vitae





Louis Catron--
Personal

 


Site Meter