He said, she said

When you quote someone or create dialogue, you can get plenty of mileage out of “said” and “asked.” Readers are used to seeing these simple, direct verbs. In fact, readers are so used to seeing them that the words barely register. That’s good. It means your readers can sail along unimpeded.

Some writers seem compelled to find a new verb for every attribution: She commented, he opined, she remarked, he orated, she inquired, he interrogated. Or, if the writers do stick with “said” and “asked,” they’ll tack an adverb on the end to hammer home exactly how the person said it: slyly, confidently, apprehensively, quixotically.

I’ll admit that, once in a while, this tactic can be effective, if the context alone doesn’t do the job.

“Clare is her own worst enemy,” he said.
“Not as long as I’m alive,” Dorothy muttered.

And my favorite, from Ring Lardner:

“Are you lost, daddy?” I asked tenderly.
“Shut up,” he explained.

But to make these devices work, you have to use them sparingly. They are dashes of cayenne pepper for your recipe, not main ingredients. If you try to come up with a new verb or adverb after every quote, you’ll soon plunge into Tom Swiftie territory.

Tom Swift was the teenage protagonist in a series of science-adventure books with titles such as Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1912) and Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter (1952). Characters in the series rarely just “said” things. They retorted. They cautioned. They suggested. They panted. If they ever said anything, they said it questioningly, or defiantly, or quickly.

The verbs and adverbs were piled on so thick that in time people started to make up their own Tom Swifties and push the device to absurd levels. Some classics:

“We have to keep this fire alight,” Tom bellowed.

“I’m not myself, today,” said Tom, being frank.

“This must be an aerobics class,” Tom worked out.

“So, it’s a duel you want!” Tom shot back.

“The prisoner escaped down a rope,” said Tom condescendingly.

“I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.

“I have a BA in social work,” said Tom with a degree of concern.

“I won’t finish in fifth place,” Tom held forth.

“That just doesn’t add up,” said Tom, nonplussed.

Don’t let your writing become a joke. Stick with “said” and “asked” as standard procedure.


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