Chuckling and Twinkling:
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
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.
is fine, once. Singed is great, once. A bird may
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
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 with
asked. “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
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
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
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