Vision: A Resource for Writers
Attribution Simple,” He…
retorted, uttered, commented, cried, dared, voiced,
returned, greeted, demanded,
observed, and muttered—but…
eliminating excessive synonyms for “said”
writing, you can unlock the door to clearer prose,
characters, and more narrative power.1
Louis E. Catron
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)
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
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.”
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.
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.”
BASIC GUIDELINES,” HE OFFERED.
What are we
to make of those examples? What
can we conclude about our own writing?
remember that “said” is invisible.
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
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.
excellent rule of thumb is simple: Use
“said” unless there’s a
powerful demand for a synonym.
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
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.”
frowned, squinting at him. “Say
she made a most interesting observation about you.”
can’t believe that you actually wrote. . . .”
She calls you a ‘psychological deviate.”
Want to hear it?”
thinking of having this laminated and framed.
Put it up on the bedroom wall over your pillow.
Let me read it to you.”
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.”
substitutions for “said” encourages you to tell, instead of show.
That’s an unhappy choice.
going,” Will observed angrily.
going!!” Will commented warmly.
going?” Will pronounced happily.
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 “observed
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.
instead of telling, can be more effective.
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.
penchant for synonyms leads to all sorts of awkwardness. What’s wrong with repeating the simple, invisible
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 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!
SAID AND DONE,” HE PRONOUNCED WITH FINALITY.
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.
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.
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.
that’s the end of that,” he concluded with finality.
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.