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Said and done: the dialogue dilemma

When writing a piece with a lot of dialogue, whether it’s a journalistic article full of quotes or a story in which plenty of conversation takes place among several characters, one of the most irritating obstacles for the writer is their reliance on the word ‘said’.

As dialogue switches back and forth, writers will inevitably  notice that they are adopting a “he said, she said” style that, if done poorly, can sound more like the sort of idle chit-chat that teenagers might have over the phone than any sort of writing worth reading. There is an argument, however, that writers can make the problem worse if they overthink it, and that substituting the word ‘said’ for the likes of ‘orated’ or ‘articulated’ is only going to draw attention away from the dialogue and towards a pretty irrelevant verb.

There are, however, many different ways to say ‘said’, and writers can also spice things up by including an adverb, as in ‘he said happily’ or ‘she said quietly’. This is done frequently enough for wordsmiths to have made it into an amusing challenge, known as a Tom Swifty.

Takings its name from a character created by American writer Edward Stratemeyer, a Tom Swifty is a pun in which the way something is said relates back to the quote itself. All quotes are attributed to ‘Tom’, and it’s definitely one of those things where the best way to explain it is to give a few examples:

“I got the first three questions wrong,” said Tom forthrightly.

“I can let you in,” Tom admitted.

“I’ve just eaten five lemons,” said Tom, full of zest.

It’s good fun to have a go at some of these yourself, but in many ways they appear to mock the lengths to which writers will go to work around the word ‘said’. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about overusing ‘said’. After all, if the quotes we use are relevant and interesting, they themselves will intrigue the reader more than the way that they’re uttered.

Steven Morris

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