Chuckling and Twinkling:The Pot-Clanging Words
by James Thayer
Santa Claus chuckles and the Fairy Godmother’s eyes twinkle, but almost no other characters in fiction should chuckle, twinkle, saunter, or snigger.
Some words are just too much. These words—often verbs—sound like kitchen pots banging together to the reader. They suggest the writer wanted to be writerly—to do a little literary strutting—and so reached for the thesaurus. Stacy walked just wouldn’t do, so Stacy ends up ambling, tramping, or trudging over to her sister to hear a funny joke, and Stacy laughed isn’t enough, so Stacy chortles, snickers, titters, cackles or guffaws.
How do we know when a word clanks? If the word calls attention to itself rather than the action or object it is intending to convey, it’s probably the wrong word. We feel sad for Mary when she cries or weeps, but we wonder about the writer if Mary blubbers, snivels, whimpers, or keens. Or wails, squalls or sniffles. These words reach too far, and they bring the reader out of the story, which is the last thing a writer wants, other than smallpox, of course.
How do we as writers end up with a word that clanks rather than communicates? A word that blats, chirrs, crumps, skirls, ululates or caterwauls rather than conveys? Writers know that some words are powerful and memorable, and should be used only once in a novel. Readers have remarkable capacities for remembering these strong words as they go through the book. Staggered on page 30 is fine, but if it appears again on page 130, the reader will think, “Hah, caught you,” which gives the reader much pleasure, but not the kind the writer had hoped. So writers wisely avoid the repetition of memorable words, and we are grateful Peter Roget’s London medical practice didn’t keep him busy two centuries ago. Infallible is fine, once. Singed is great, once. A bird may warble, but only once in a novel. After that, another word is needed to keep the reader’s nose in the book.
But many words—common verbs for common actions—can be used again and again without the reader even thinking about the word. Stacy laughed on page 12, and she can laugh on page 15 and again on page 20, and every five pages through the novel because Stacy is big fun, and the reader will enjoy her merriment without giving a thought to the word that conveyed it: laughed. Stacy needn’t snort, whoop, convulse, or cachinnate. The same is true for run, walked, jumped, yelled, and a host of other verbs. These words don’t stick in the reader’s mind.
The king of common verbs is said. Almost every time our characters speak, said should be the verb. “He stole my car,” Joe said. “I swear I put that lottery ticket in the recycle bin,” Amber said. He said. She said. Grandma said. Same withasked. “Has the recycle truck come by this morning?” her husband asked. Readers never tire of the dialogue tags he said or she said or Joe said or Alex asked because readers never even think about them. They are invisible. All that the reader realizes is that a character is speaking. The reader pays attention to the dialogue, not the verb phrase he said.
Clanking synonyms for said are plentiful: “Give me the money,” Jesse intoned. Jesse stuttered. Remarked, asserted, stated, mumbled, droned, croaked, palavered, and a hundred other pot-bangers, a list as long as it is irritating to the reader.
Usually there’s no need to reach for the thesaurus for said and other common verbs. The reader sees through them to the story. The reader registers the action, dialogue, and settings, not the ink on the page. This word transparency should be the object of all fiction writing.
Exceptions exist. Sometimes said and walked and the other common verbs just won’t tell the reader all that is occurring in the scene. If your character Professor Smith is a pompous know-it-all, then this is perfect; “Today we discuss Shakespeare’s many shortcomings,” Professor Smith intoned. If Bubba Jones is knee-walking drunk, then Bubba Jones lurched down the sidewalk is just right.
But most times, keep the reader in the story by using words that are clear and simple and common. Repeating these common words in our fiction isn’t weak writing. It’s strong writing.
Barney Fife might amble down Main Street, but our characters should walk. Count Dracula might cackle, but our heroine should settle for laughing. Scarlett O’Hara would glide and prance and shimmy across the ballroom floor, but our characters ought to just dance.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).