Tom Swifties

I went to hear Elmore Leonard speak at the Coolidge Theater in Boston about 10 years ago. My biggest takeaway was that he never used adverbs when his characters talked. You should be able to tell from the dialogue if they said it angrily or nervously, he said. As we had always eschewed adverbs in newspaper work, I found it easy to adopt his policy for my own.

And then, last week, my son came back from summer camp and introduced us to Tom Swifties. It’s shocking, really, that I didn’t know about them before. I love word games and I love bad puns, and the Swifties (named for  a character developed by Edward Stratemeyer, but tracing its roots to Dickens, if you believe Wikipedia) have both.

The basic rules: Make up a quote, have Tom say it, throw in an adverb that shows how he said it, but make the adverb break into a pun based on the original quote. Er… as in all writing, it’s better to show, not tell, so let me try again by giving you a Swifty that my son made up:

“Maybe we could go camping,” Tom said tentatively.

Get it, tentatively?

Here’s another one, also courtesy of my kid (because as much as I love these things, it seems I’m pretty bad at them): “Let’s go through the window,” Tom said indifferently.

It’s what my improv teacher would call a groaner. Beautiful, right? Here’s another favorite, found on some internet web site, but never found again so I can’t give the writer proper credit: “I can’t remember the name of Artemis’ twin,” Tom said apologetically.

There are other variations of Swifties, some that don’t even require adverbs. (For example: “I’m losing my hair,” Tom bawled.) But I prefer the first kind. I’m sharing them with you now, in the spirit of long summer car trips, for when the license plate game gets old. If you have any you want to leave in the comments, I’m happy to groan along with you.

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4 Responses to Tom Swifties

  1. madelyn says:

    I’m so behind!!

  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    David Lubar loves Tom Swifties … I think that’s where I first heard of them.

  3. madelyn says:

    I know, it’s pathetic!!! I’m making up for lost time though… (I should have known you would be the Swifty King!)

  4. John says:

    You went all these years never having heard of Tom Swifties? John asked pungently. I’m beside myself, he added.

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