Meet My Nemesis

Word choice can make a fledgling story sparkle or a brilliant plot twist roll by unnoticed. Upgrading a few old standbys engages the reader and drives the action forward. One specimen that could almost always use a boost is my personal nemesis.

SAID

Nothing fatigues me quite so much as miles and miles of dialogue with nothing more than a “he said,” “she said” tossed in. The most fascinating book in the world will send me snoozing if every line is delivered with this bland and eye-crossing pest.

Is the protagonist expressing herself at the same volume, with the same emotion, and with the same inflection every single time she speaks? Good gracious, I hope not.

Switching up this one verb transforms a line of dialogue into an entire character study. Let’s try it out.

She sprinted toward the exit as the crumbling building bit at her heels. In twenty feet she’d be free of the prison that had claimed so many years of her life. She could not allow it to take what little she had left.

As the sunlight and sea air beckoned through the splintered doorway a curdling scream pierced her ears from the shadows. The sound wrapped itself around her, paralyzing her feet and catapulting her face-first into the cracked stone floor.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

Said. Kind of anticlimactic, huh? I got next to nothing out of that exclamation thanks to that one lousy little word. How would it change what we know about this mystery character if the final line were any of the following?

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she raged.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she giggled.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she wailed.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grunted.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she spat.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she gasped.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she moaned.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she whispered.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she sang.

Now we know if she’s in pain, tired, or possibly not in her right mind. We know if she’s angry, exasperated, or scared. We know what state she’s in emotionally and physically. We know if she’s the kind of person to find the situation ironic and amusing or infuriating and insulting. From just one word upgrade, the reader can be sympathetic or disgusted.

“But Kate,” I hear someone cry, “what if it’s a robot? Or a computer? They wouldn’t necessarily have an emotional range to work with!”

Okay, I’ll play along. Our protagonist is now a robot-computer.

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it whirred.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it clicked.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it blipped.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it ground out.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” scrolled across its monitor.

Simple as that, we know if this techno-being is clockwork, droid-like, or not even vocal.

No one has to avoid using said forever, but replacing it injects a story with far more opportunity for empathetic, three-dimensional characters. And you’ll be helping keep my nemesis at bay. Fight the good fight, my friends!

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