Can you remember the last time you retorted?
July 8, 2015
WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM. Words that distract a reader from a scene’s vibe.
“I think you murdered her,” Joe said.
“If you think I killed her, you need your head examined,” Ralph retorted.
If you are like me when you reach that last word retorted you cringe.
Retort is a perfectly good word, and its use in the sentence is technically proper.
Still retorted stand outs like a sore thumb in the passage.
It stands out because using a word like retorted makes the sentence sound fabricated.
It sounds like writing.
One of the really bizarre things about good writing is that it doesn’t sound like writing at all.
Rather it sounds like a story, told around a campfire where the words and the efforts of the author fade away and the drama of the event takes over.
So how do we fix the retorted sentence in the example?
Two ways come to mind.
The first, and probably the better, of the two fixes is to drop the attribution altogether.
“If you think I killed her, you need your head examined.”
From the context, the reader knows only two people are in the conversation. From the content of the response, she can tell the second speaker replied sharply and contradicted what Joe said.
So what does the attribution tag add?
But if the author wants to use an attribution anyway, he would do well to stick with plain old he said.
I know there are different schools of thought on this subject, but I fall into the camp which views said as an invisible word. Readers pay no attention to it, and that is precisely the point. The writer hopes the reader will focus her attention on the force of the story and not become distracted with extraneous trappings that do nothing but draw attention to the writer.
Words like retort make me think of a stage play where the author stands off stage and occasionally shouts out so that the audience knows he is there. “Retorted,” he yells from the wings.
“Who was that?” an audience members whispers to the person sitting next to him.
“Just some author showing off,” her neighbor retorts.
Stephen Woodfin is the author of The Compost Pile.