As I’ve written about before, choosing exactly the right descriptive word when you’re writing is important–words carry not only a direct meaning, but an implied meaning as well, called a connotation.
I noticed this afresh during an impromptu “writers’ club” meeting with my guy friend; we had switched computers to read each other’s stories so far, and I saw that while he had scattered descriptive words all throughout his story, some of them didn’t quite seem to fit the tone of what he meant. Instead of saying “said” a million times, for instance, he had put in apparent synonyms for the word “said”, like “noted,” “stated,” etc. Yet these words didn’t have the right “shade” of meaning in the context of what the characters were saying, etc.
I’ve run into this same problem many times in my own writing–I call it “synonym syndrome,” when you’re trying desperately not to use the same word over and over. The problem comes in when the synonyms you’re trying to use don’t quite match your meaning; they can cause a little confusion in the reader as they try to picture the scene you’ve written.
Examples of Synonym Syndrome
“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Sandy noted.
“Psst, look over there,” Nathan stated.
“This is my original opinion,” he cited.
“WILL YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME?!” she murmured.
All of these speaking words in these examples do have the basic meaning of speech, but the more subtle shades of meaning in each one render our mental picture of the described action a little differently. It’s hard for readers to imagine a character murmuring in all caps, for instance. When you overuse synonyms like this, which is very tempting to do, it’s almost like your writing becomes a thesaurus in and of itself–it reads in a more stilted fashion rather than flowing naturally.
Some Ideas to Fix Synonym Syndrome
- First of all, don’t be afraid to use the same word a few times in as many pages. If the right word to describe a character’s speech is “said,” then use “said,” and don’t worry about it. It will read much smoother.
- As you look at a synonym list, mentally picture the action you’re trying to describe, as if you’re watching a movie form of it. How are the “actors” in your mental scene acting or speaking? Which of the words you’re looking at describes that action the best?
- If you can’t find exactly the right synonym for an action verb, remember that you can add an adverb, which will spike the verb with a little more descriptive meaning. Just be sure to use adverbs sparingly–they’re like garlic, good in small quantities but easily overwhelming if you put in too much.
Examples (adverbs in italics):
- “She sighed tiredly“
- “Swiftly, he answered”
- “The box slid slowly down the slope”
- “Sinking down into a chair dramatically, she closed her eyes”
Additional Food for Thought: Taking Apart Synonyms’ Meanings
Really take time to dissect the words you want to use. Do they really mean what you want them to mean? This can help you determine whether your word choice is natural or whether it’s got a little synonym syndrome. As examples, let’s look at the words “said” and “moved.”
Synonyms for “Said”
- remarked – implies that the sentence spoken is either a retort/comeback or a pointed/smart reply.
- noted – implies a quiet addition to someone else’s comment
- cited – implies a quotation by the speaker rather than an original thought
- answered/replied – requires another character to have spoken before to make sense
- stated – implies a strident or resolute tone of speech, unmovable by others’ opinions
- muttered – implies a resentful tone
- murmured – implies a very quiet tone, either of a shy comment or a loving one
- whispered – implies a quiet tone, but more of passing information secretly between characters
Synonyms for “Moved”
- stomped – implies anger/frustration
- tiptoed – implies timidity or caution, possibly stealth
- glided – implies graceful movement–can be snakelike (negative/evil) or swanlike (positive/good)
- skipped – implies carefree, blissful state of mood
- sneaked – implies stealth, usually for an underhanded purpose
- strode – implies confidence, possibly arrogance or anger
- moseyed – implies an unhurried, almost lazy pace
- strolled – a casual walk
- sauntered – a casual walk with a slight shade of conceitedness/overconfidence; often used when a female character is approaching a male character she’s interested in