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ANSWER: Appropriate synonyms for "said"

west_side asks, "What synonyms for said should and should not be used as dialogue tags?"



I love this question, and I'll get to the more direct answer in a moment, but first a caveat:

Be careful with your dialogue tags! Yes, it gets exciting throwing in exclaimed, whispered, cried, or hissed, but overall your writing will look cleaner and will have better flow if you just stick with simple, straight-forward said. Think I'm crazy? Ask Elmore Leonard. Writing should be about showing, not telling, and your reader should understand from context if someone is shouting or whispering or exclaiming.

Having said that, and as someone who has trouble sticking to said herself, let's go over a few basic guidelines for good—and bad—synonyms for that humblest of dialogue tags.

1. Make sure the synonym is an actual way of speaking—a "talking word"—and not an action.
GOOD:
"I win! That's four hands in a row," Mitchell crowed.
"I no longer wish to play, Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c grunted.

BAD:
"I win! That's four hands in a row," Mitchell grinned.
"I no longer wish to play, Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c glowered.

Do you see the difference? One can't say a grin or a glower: they're facial expressions, not talking words.

2. Don't get cocky, kid.
GOOD:
"Got 'im! I got 'im!" Luke cried.
"Great, kid! Don't get cocky," Han said over his shoulder.

BAD:
"Got 'im! I got 'im!" Luke bleated.
"Great, kid! Don't get cocky," Han proclaimed over his shoulder.

Keep it simple! You're not a walking thesaurus, and usually the first word that pops into your head (e.g., said) is the best choice. The second example sounds pretentious, and it could get old fast.

*2.5. With this in mind, some synonyms are better—and, perhaps, more necessary—than others. I'm thinking of cried, muttered, mumbled, whispered, and moaned, to name a few. I've provided a link to a much longer list at the end of this article, but use caution and wisdom, and remember rule #2.

3. Consider the context.
GOOD:
The sun was sinking below the hills, casting the Shire in long shadows and a mellow golden glow. "I envy you hobbits," Gandalf murmured around a puff of pipe smoke. "I would stay here always."
Bilbo chuckled and blew a smoke ring. "It gets boring after a time," he muttered almost to himself. "Sometimes one longs for a bit of adventure."

BAD:
The sun was sinking below the hills, casting the Shire in long shadows and a mellow golden glow. "I envy you hobbits," Gandalf announced around a puff of pipe smoke. "I would stay here always."
Bilbo chuckled and blew a smoke ring. "It gets boring after a time," he wailed. "Sometimes one longs for a bit of adventure."

Gandalf and Bilbo are having a quiet moment. They're smoking, watching the sunset, and enjoying their evening. The much gentler synonyms like murmured and muttered are far more appropriate than the louder, more melodramatic announced and wailed.

Let's look at another example:
GOOD:
It was complete chaos. They'd stepped through the Gate and right into an ambush. "We're under heavy fire, repeat heavy fire!" Carter barked into her radio. "We need backup now!"

BAD:
It was complete chaos. They'd stepped through the Gate and right into an ambush. "We're under heavy fire, repeat heavy fire!" Carter gasped into her radio. "We need backup now!"

While Carter might be gasping, she's certainly more likely to be giving loud, forceful orders into that radio than quietly breathing into it.

When choosing synonyms for said consider the specific situation, the speakers, and the general universe/fandom. Are military personnel in the SG1 universe likely to wail or moan when faced with a tough situation? Is Han Solo a whiner? Is Gollum more likely to hiss or to proclaim? Answer all of those questions before choosing a dialogue tag, and then be prepared to defend your choice—even if it's only to yourself!

4. Look for other ways to modify your dialogue.

Let's revamp our examples from rules #1 and 2 using rule #4:
A triumphant grin spread across Mitchell's face as he laid his cards on the table. "I win," he said. "That's four hands in a row!"
Teal'c was not amused. "I no longer wish to play, Colonel Mitchell."

As the Imperial fighter exploded, Luke couldn't contain his glee. "Got 'im! I got 'im!"
"Great, kid! Don't get cocky," Han said with a knowing smirk.

This rule goes back to my initial caveat. If you can find ways of expressing your speakers' emotions, tones, or states of mind without using a synonym of said, so much the better.

*4.5. Please, please don't use an adverb to modify your dialogue!
BAD:
"I love lembas," Sam said brightly.

WORSE:
"Orcses! We hates them," Gollum sobbed piteously.

WORST (Don't do this. But you know that from rule #1.):
"The ring is mine! My own," Frodo scowled vehemently.

Using an adverb to modify your dialogue—especially when using a synonym for said—isn't technically wrong, but it is a stylistic sin. Doubting me once more? Ask Elmore Leonard again. Or Stephen King.

NB: All of these same rules can be applied to questions, also. There's a question mark at the end of the sentence, so asked isn't strictly necessary; you can just stick with said. If you're more comfortable using a word like asked to tag your questions, then apply all the above rules when you start searching for synonyms: make sure it's a "talking word," don't get cocky (or pretentious), consider the context, and keep looking for other ways—besides adverbs!—to modify your dialogue.

To conclude, I'll quote Neil Gaiman:
Said's are invisible. They vanish onto the page. The eye barely sees them—they become one with the inverted commas that indicate that something is being said. … Lots of authors, when they start out, remember from school that you shouldn't repeat words too much, and are careful to replace each said with growled, uttered, yelped, hissed, exclaimed, asseverated, muttered, affirmed and so on, and cannot work out why people dismiss the writing as amateurish. Use them, but use them sparingly. It's like salt in a dish. Too much and it's all you taste.

Use your synonyms, but use them wisely. Oh, and here's the list I promised, in .pdf form.
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