Guest Post: No One Ever Just “Says” Something, by Christina Hamlett

Wednesday, June 17, 2009
No One Ever Just “Says” Something

by Christina Hamlett

When I was a teen, I had an aversion to using “said” in a story. It was blah. It was ordinary. It was pedestrian. Why use “said”, I thought, when there were so many words that were way more expressive? Throughout high school English classes, my characters squealed, pontificated, reflected, mused and accused. As if that weren’t enough to liven up their dialogue, I was also generous in my deployment of adverbs. After all, who’s going to be a scarier villain: the one who “growled menacingly” or the one who said, “If you don’t give me the money, I’ll kill you”?

By the time I started publishing my work, I was fortunate to have editors who pointed out that the habit of euphemizing the word “said” was to the detriment of the actual dialogue. Its quiet obscurity, they pointed out, was what allowed readers to skip over it and pay attention to what the characters were communicating. Throw a word like “elucidated” into the mix and it either sends a reader running to the nearest dictionary or colors her view that the author is a snob.

As a screenplay consultant, I read a lot of scenes where writers have tried to explain exactly how a line should be delivered. This is problematic on two counts. The first is that actors don’t like being told what to do by anyone other than directors. Secondly, many of these instructions defy comprehension. How, for instance, does one “blanch uncontrollably”, “smile successfully” or “swear gracefully”?

Listed below are the most common – as well as some of the most bizarre – parentheticals I’ve encountered. At the end of the day, sometimes “said” isn’t such a bad thing after all.

1. laughing maniacally
2. cackling hysterically
3. grimacing furtively
4. laughing satirically
5. smiling aggressively
6. whistling angrily
7. blushing fiercely
8. glaring impassively
9. staring aimlessly
10. blanching uncontrollably
11. swallowing lazily
12. chuckling wistfully
13. shouting hesitantly
14. seething wholeheartedly
15. coughing defiantly
16. chuckling contagiously
17. leering mightily
18. shouting orgasmically
19. blinking rhythmically
20. shrugging moronically
21. smiling soberly
22. staring wildly
23. sighing incessantly
24. yawning cavernously
25. gloating boldly
26. sneering leerily
27. sighing soulfully
28. smirking ruefully
29. groaning disparagingly
30. nodding emphatically
31. stretching indifferently
32. smiling rhetorically
33. fainting forcefully
34. sneezing emphatically
35. smiling successfully
36. smiling diagonally
37. whispering haughtily
38. yawning seductively
39. grinning gnashingly
40. breathing darkly
41. thinking sporadically
42. whimpering mincingly
43. scowling convincingly
44. chirping amicably
45. fidgeting wildly
46. guessing blindly
47. grinning indifferently
48. listening suggestively
49. barking congestedly
50. swearing gracefully

Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, ghostwriter and professional script consultant whose credits include 26 books, 128 plays, 5 optioned feature films, and hundreds of articles and interviews. Her latest release, Movie Girl, is the launch book of a new humorous fiction series targeted to teen and tween girls. To learn more, visit her website at

*** Christina is also a WOW! Women on Writing Classroom instructor. Sign up now for her six week online course, SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES: An Introduction to the Craft of Screenwriting.

*** For information on all of our current classes, please visit the WOW! Women On Writing Workshops & Classes page.


Unknown said...

I've just copied and pasted your list onto my desk top and i'm going to use as many of them as possible. What an amazing list. I remember when i first started writing and i had strange little habbits aboout my writing like you sai problems. It's funny how you let them go as you get older and they start to lose any meaning!
Fat belly

LuAnn said...

As a journalist, I always use "said" as none of the other words truly mean the same thing. However, when I reading a novel, I do like to see some of the other expressions and words used as, yes, said in that instance, is pretty boring.

Krymzen Hall said...

Breathing Darkly? Cute!! I'm glad you wrote this...I have been battling the "said" problem for a while and I needed the clarification.

"I am grateful," I said, or rather, winked lightheartedly.

Well-written piece.

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