Battling Writer’s Block: Letting Characters Drive the Story

It’s safe to say that almost every writer out there has suffered from writer’s block in some way, whether it’s a question of what to do with a character, where the plot should go next, how the story should end, or even how it should begin. There are a number of ways to try getting through that brick wall, but I want to focus on one that I have found to be quite helpful in my own writing:

Ask your character.

Say what? How does a fictional character that you gave life to, that you decided on their appearance, their personality, their every personal detail, have the ability to drive a story? If you’ve developed your character effectively, asking them should be like asking your friend, or at least an acquaintance.

Let’s say you’ve made it part way through your novel and you’re stuck. Maybe you have some ideas of different paths to take and can’t decide which way to go. Ask your character which way they would naturally follow. Perhaps you’re partial to Path B but your character is telling you that Path A makes more sense, that they are more inclined to drive things in that direction. Listen to them and do it.

Now let’s say you’re close to the end of the novel and get stuck there. You have no idea at all what to do, not even a single thought of where the story should go next. Ask your character. I know you’re saying it’s not that easy, a character cannot possibly pull an idea out of the sky, but if you’ve developed your character deeply enough, they will answer you. Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing next to your character, looking them in the eye and saying, “Where should we go from here?” Walk beside them as they lead you where they are naturally inclined to go.

So, you’ve got a character that has answered your questions and they have told you clearly what they want to do, but you hate their answer. You think it’s a terrible idea and your story will be a train wreck if you follow their lead. Listen to them and do it anyway. Often times when you let the character lead you, they only lead one step at a time rather than telling you the full narrative of what they want. If you take each step walking beside them as you write, you just might be surprised with where you end up.

If you’ve followed your character’s suggestion and you’re not happy with where you ended up, try writing the story going in another direction. Perhaps take that other path you were considering or go in the complete opposite direction of what your character said and compare. You might even take it a step further by telling your character, “Go down this path, then tell me what you would do from here.” Walk beside them again, and once you’ve reached your destination, decide which way worked best.

Stepping aside from the topic of writer’s block for a moment, using this character-driving technique can improve your story in other ways, particularly in dialogue exchanges. Rather than putting words in your character’s mouth, let them speak on their own. Watch their physical actions as they talk and describe this in your writing. Letting a main character shine on their own creates a deeper connection with readers, making them feel more immersed in the story.

So go ahead. Ask your character. If they don’t answer you, revisit your character development. If they have ideas, let them take the wheel and enjoy the ride.

Five Tips for Cleaner Writing

Self-editing doesn’t just have to be about the big stuff like plot, characters, or descriptions, and it doesn’t just have to be about fixing sticky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. There are other things that writers don’t always think about when cleaning up their work, but adding these to your self-editing checklist will help polish your writing to make it shine for publishers and engage your readers.

1. Trim Wordiness

Wordiness can stem from how we would use language in speech, and that’s okay when we have other things to help engage us in a spoken story: facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. In writing, though, we only have the words themselves. Cutting back on “couch potato” words can make sentences more active and engaging. Take the following example:

There were thousands of screaming fans packing the arena.

Though the sentence sounds fine, we can make it better by trimming the generic words “there were,” because those words don’t do anything. Like couch potatoes. We can make it more active like this:

Thousands of screaming fans packed the arena.

Compare these two sentences and see which one is more active and engaging. We see the same results when we trim “there is” from a sentence.

There is an ambulance rushing to the scene.

can become

An ambulance rushes to the scene.

Analyze your sentences to see if any couch potatoes are hanging around, and kick them out.

2. Unscramble Misplaced Modifiers

This is another one that can stem from our use of spoken language in writing. Sometimes a sentence that makes sense when spoken doesn’t quite translate when written. Take this example:

I saw a hawk on the way to work.

Was the hawk wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase? Likely not. Let’s try this:

On the way to work, I saw a hawk.

Now we know who is actually going to work. You might say that the original was fine, easy to understand. Perhaps, but you can’t bet on that. Something like the following is even worse:

At almost 50,000 years old, the archeologists believe their specimens are the oldest ever discovered.

This makes it sound like the archeologists are 50,000 years old. We need to move that modifier closer to the object it’s modifying. A way to fix it would be like this:

The archeologists believe their specimens, almost 50,000 years old, are the oldest ever discovered.

Again you may have though the original was clear enough. But careful readers will stumble and be confused.

3. Redundancy

Somewhat in the same vein as wordiness, redundancy is something that pops up naturally, and because it is so natural we don’t always notice. Careful consideration can clean up some unnecessary junk.

The restaurant offers seven different vegetarian entrees.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but in reality we don’t need to specify that the seven entrees are different. It is implied when we state the number of them.

The restaurant offers seven vegetarian entrees.

Cleaner and straight to the point. This can also happen when we feel the need to be descriptive:

I visited the tall, steel skyscraper.

Skyscrapers are usually pretty tall and not made out of wood or brick, so these things are redundant. We need to choose more unique descriptors to help this particular building stand out.

I visited the silver skyscraper with the tall, tinted windows.

Every building is unique, so we need to make it feel as such in our writing.

4. Overcooked Metaphors

As creative writers we sometimes like to use metaphor to help illustrate a scene or a character’s feelings, and this is a wonderful and useful tool. A good writer will use them only when it can truly add to the story, and to aid the reader in feeling more about what is going on in a scene. Occasionally, writers can get a bit carried away with this tool, and something like this happens:

The plan had erupted into a volcano of controversy that had cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

This is a very intense metaphor that certainly describes the tremendous impact the plan has had on the community. But it’s overcooked; a volcanic eruption and an earthquake? We don’t need that much metaphor to illustrate a serious situation. We can choose one of these metaphors and make it work.

Controversy over the plan cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

Sticking with the earthquake metaphor illustrates the impact clearly and tactfully.

5. Rambling Sentences

When I say rambling sentences I don’t necessarily mean run-on sentences. In creative writing, run-on sentences are totally okay—unless you do it too much, then the reader gets lost. Rambling sentences are just that; they ramble on about a subject to the point of confusion, and is usually resolved by cutting it into multiple sentences. Here’s a rambler:

The three-day annual festival SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts, one of the first festivals to host big-name bands, and includes local acts performing cover songs.

This sentence was painful to write, but it is a good example of a long sentence gone wrong. Many writers feel the need to have long sentences because it flows more, keeps things moving. Short sentences are choppier and can affect the mood of a scene. Both are useful at the right time. We can still split this up while keeping enough flow.

One of the first festivals to host big-name bands, the annual SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts. Over three days, fans are treated to their favorite songs, both by well-known bands and local acts.

By adding a little flair to what was already included, I was able to create two sentences that each flow well on their own, and flow together, making this fictitious festival sound more interesting.

Feeling Clean?

Don’t be afraid to clean up, and don’t try to hold onto something that the story might be better off without. We writers tend to get attached to certain ways we have worded things in our stories, but part of self-editing is re-evaluating even those bits we are so confident about. What makes sense in a writer’s head won’t always make sense to anyone else. Got that super awesome metaphor collection or long, descriptive sentences that you just love? Try to see things from a reader’s point of view; can someone else follow your train of thought? When in doubt, get a second pair of eyes to give you a valuable outsider’s perspective.

The Benefits of Changing Point of View

Many times when that great story idea hits us writers, we know exactly how we want things to go. We know who our main character will be, if we want it in first or third person, where it will take place, and likely some side characters too. Then we start putting those words on paper, everything flows, we’re proud, excited, feeling awesome.

But what happens when you change any of those beginning ideas after the first draft?

When I was in college, the advanced writing course required students to participate in the “steeplechase” writing exercise. In this exercise, writers are to follow a set of twelve steps, writing a different section of the story based on each step. I won’t list them all here, but I will discuss two of the steps that completely changed a story I wrote—for the better.

First Person or Third?

After the first step of the steeplechase, which is just writing a section of the story as you normally would, step two is to switch the POV from first to third, or vice versa. My story was originally in first person, so I changed it to third. Depending on your main character, this can either be a minor change or a drastic change in voice. In my case, it went from the voice of a fifteen-year-old girl to that of a neutral adult narrator.

Big change. Look at a story you’ve written and think about what would happen if you were to change that point of view. Would it completely change the story from what you originally planned? If so, is that really a bad thing?

For my story it was a tremendous upgrade. But the POV changes don’t stop there.

Who is the Main Character?

Step four of the steeplechase asks the student to write from the point of view of another character. Any secondary character that might have a chance to progress the story through their eyes would be a fine choice. I had a character who was somewhat of an anti-hero and played a significant part in the story, so I chose to write from his point of view, in the third person. Before long, I knew I wanted this POV to be intermingled with that of the main character. Both would drive the story together.

In your writing, pick another character in a scene and start writing through their eyes. Let that character’s voice and attitude drive the scene, then take a step back and analyze the scene’s new direction. Is it a direction you might want to continue? If not, consider it a great exercise in character development. But you might be (pleasantly) surprised at the results.

The Final Outcome

You may find that making these changes will not benefit your story, maybe even harm it. And that’s okay. But forcing yourself to write from a different angle not only makes for excellent writing practice, but also opens the mind to other opportunities. Perhaps next time you get a story idea, try this again and see the results. My story, which went through the entire twelve-step steeplechase exercise, is now told entirely from the point of view of the anti-hero in third person, and I am more passionate about it than ever. Change can be wonderful. Embrace it.

Writing a Character of the Opposite Sex

In one of my writing classes in college, my least favorite teacher of all time told the class that it was not possible for anyone to successfully write in the point of view of the opposite sex. I said hold my drink (not out loud, of course). The novel I then focused on for the class workshop starred a male character, and though told in the third person, the story focuses on his thoughts, feelings, and actions. The reader sees everything through his eyes.

How can I, a female, possibly be able to fully and accurately develop and write from the view of a male character? How can any man possibly depict a woman’s point of view? It’s well known that our brains work differently, that we see many things from different perspectives, and I’m sure we form our thoughts differently as well. Good character development comes in part from getting inside the head of the character, but unless we’re like that guy from the movie What Women Want, that’s going to be a bit difficult.

Or is it?

Analyzing Those Close to You

Most if not all of us have close friends or a significant other of the opposite sex. These are people we likely know more deeply than we would an acquaintance. Rather than try and compare them to you, focus on what is unique to them as a group. What mannerisms do you notice among those of the opposite gender? Consider both body language and dialogue. What stands out? Make your character do some of these things and see if they fit.

People Watching

As something that typically comes naturally to writers, try watching those around you. Sit in a public place like a busy park or mall and take note of what you see among those of the opposite sex. Many people act differently when in public, so take note of the differences. How do they sit or walk? How do they communicate with strangers? This may not get you into their head, but being able to describe these things will aid in character development.

Read, Read, Read

The easiest way to get into the head of someone different is to read character-driven books. Search out books that are told from the point of view of the opposite sex and read them. You might say that you read books all the time with characters like that, but you need to read like a writer, not just sit back to enjoy the story. Analyze the character and how he or she was written, making sure you get a clear picture of who that person is and what makes them that way. Be sure to choose a variety of books to review to get a clear picture of different types of people.

Get an Expert Opinion

Once your story’s first draft is complete and you are in the market for an editor, try finding one that matches the sex of your main character. Not only will you get an opinion as to whether you have succeeded in depicting your character, but he or she can provide expert advice on how to tweak it, if necessary. A story like this will benefit greatly from developmental editing.

As for my closed-minded, old-school teacher? She never commented on my male character being wrong and she gave me an A in the class. Moral of the story: You can do it.

Improving Character Development

I’ve discussed in previous posts the importance of character development and how other ways of improving your writing can have an effect on your characters. I want to dedicate a single post to this topic, as it is, in my opinion, the biggest driving force of a story next to plot.

Do you really know who your characters are? You might think so, but as I discovered first hand, it’s very possible to not have characters fully developed, no matter how much you think you know. When I had a critique done on a novel I wrote, I was surprised to hear that the characters I felt so strongly about and thought I knew inside and out really didn’t come across as developed. The critiquer even stated that by the end of the story, they did not feel like they knew that character at all.

Many writers ask how they can improve character development, not knowing where to start. I say start at the beginning. As a writing exercise, rewind your character’s life and write their story. Try answering these questions to get started:

  • Who were their parents? Or were they raised by someone other than their parents?
  • Did they grow up in a poor environment or affluent family?
  • Did they have childhood friends? Do any friends from back then stick around to show up in your story?
  • How did they do in school? Did they struggle, or did they go to advanced classes?

If your character is an adolescent, you can’t go much farther in life than this. Consider more tiny details like favorite movies, books, games, food. These are good If your character is an adult too, but also consider some more questions, depending on age:

  • What do they do for work? Have they had multiple jobs? Did they like it or hate it?
  • What kind of car do they drive? Or do they have to take the bus?
  • If they have a significant other, how did they meet? How have past relationships been?

Don’t just answer these questions in one sentence. Take it and make a mini story. For example, if your character had a childhood friend, write about their relationship. Even if this friend does not appear in your main story, writing out how they were as children or teenagers will bring out traits in your character that you might not have seen. Perhaps it’s a friend that your character lost touch with before your main story begins, and their parting affected your character’s actions toward others in the future. Knowing the details of their past will help you tune into how your character became who they are today.

Any of these questions can be developed into a mini story, and even linked together to make a full profile of your character’s life before now. Make it at least a couple of pages long, but don’t limit yourself. You might discover something new and run with it. By the end you should feel that you know every detail about them, because if you were thorough enough, you should know everything and be prepared to bring those things to life in your story.

Setting Descriptions and Improving Descriptive Writing

When writers are focused on characters, plot, and flow of a story, sometimes the development of something equally as important gets overlooked. Amazing characters and an engrossing story cannot stand on their own; the writer must put them in vivid, memorable locations. Part of what makes fiction writing so meaningful to many is the ability to travel to another world within the pages of a book, and authors who can clearly depict such a world will have readers hooked.

But what constitutes a well-written setting? Too much description can get boring for the reader, but too little leaves ambiguity. Simply ask yourself some questions and determine how it may benefit your reader.

Is the scene taking place outdoors? Consider the weather: is the sun bright and hot, warming the skin and making the character squint? Or is the night cool with a light breeze and stars so clearly visible that the character can identify constellations with the naked eye?

For an indoor setting, determine the type of room. Is it a lush living room with satin couches and custom-made sandalwood end tables, sun pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows? Or is it a musty studio apartment with creaking wood flooring and no air conditioning, a cockroach peeking out from a crevice in the floorboards?

What makes these decisions important is that the setting of a scene can have an effect on the characters. Standing in the hot sun might make a character sweat, adding body language such as wiping the brow or fanning themselves. The dialogue of characters gathered in a lush living room might be more formal. Not only do settings give your characters a place to be, but those settings improve character development.

Sometimes the tiniest of details can add more to the story than what you think. As an exercise, put yourself in the character’s shoes and look around. What do you see? I first learned of this exercise decades ago when a class assignment was to practice descriptive writing by describing a room in my house in detail, starting from directly in front of me and then moving around clockwise. As an example here, I will write a detailed description of a part of the room I’m in.

Directly in front of me near the corner of the room is a flat-screen TV, currently off. Three remotes lay in front of it, and a small cable box sits on a small shelf below the one the TV sits on. To the right of the TV is an old brown speaker with a VCR on top. The right wall is adorned with a line of four photo frames, each filled with a picture of my twin daughters, rewinding time with each photo left to right. In front of this wall is a small coffee table currently blanketed in toys ranging from plastic dinosaurs to cars to Barbie dolls to miniature animals. Beside the table is a small, soft, toddler-sized chair from my husband’s childhood. Covered in a faux wool fabric, it currently holds a genie doll with bright pink hair.

This is only a fraction of my current environment, and of course in a story situation not all of these details are necessary. But let’s pretend for a moment that this is the setting of a story; what bits of information might be useful? The photos of the children and the variety of toys tell a lot about who resides in the home. Perhaps the mention of the VCR and childhood chair depicts nostalgia as a character trait. But the placement of the remotes and the cable box would not add anything to the story.

Try this exercise either within your story’s environment to develop it directly, or in your own home or work space to practice descriptive writing. Either way, you will feel results in your writing.

Why Reading Aloud is Important for Writers

It’s safe to say that many writers feel that the voice inside their head is sufficient enough for evaluating one’s own work, or even the work of others. They often consider the act of reading aloud to be a ridiculous waste of time. I’ll be honest and say that was how I felt for a long time. It was only once I was forced to do it that I discovered this interesting new perspective.

When I was a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago one of the things we had to regularly do is read each other’s work aloud to the class. The teacher would choose someone’s work, read a passage from it, then pass it to one or two other students before giving it back to the author to read a final section. This exercise has multiple benefits, all of which will not only assist you in improving your work, but also in improving yourself as a writer and overall literary human.

The first benefit comes from hearing others read your work aloud. You are hearing your words come from someone else’s voice. This person is visually reading your words, processing them mentally, then bringing them out to your ears using their own tone, pitch, and inflections of speech. If they’re good at reading aloud (which I’ll discuss later), this will be a glorious awakening.

Success in strong character development and dialogue will have your reader portraying those voices well. Flowing setting descriptions will make the reader’s delivery flow just as smoothly. But if what comes out doesn’t sound right to you, don’t blame your reader straightaway. What can you do to make your story heard better? Was there some specific wording or sentence structure they stumbled on? Did a character’s dialogue not come across as authentic? Consider it an opportunity to improve the writing instead of blaming someone for not “getting it.” If it doesn’t sound right to your ears, it’s likely not going to sound right in anyone’s head other than yours.

A second benefit to this exercise comes when you read your own work aloud. You’ll gain the most when you read it to someone and get their feedback, but simply finding a hiding spot and reading by yourself will also be rewarding. The voice you speak with really is different than the one in your head. It takes more mental processing to read aloud; not only does your brain have to read the words on the page, but it also has to control the physical movements of speaking and manipulating your voice to match what is seen with your eyes. Do you find yourself stumbling on any wording? Are you able to portray your characters without forcing or exaggerating anything? If it sounded good, nice work. If not, revisit.

Lastly, one of the most surprising benefits I discovered is learning how to be a good reader. When doing these exercises in my classes, I didn’t realize that I was subliminally being taught the art of reading aloud. Though the teacher did tell us to occasionally look up at the audience, it was actually the act of bringing another writer’s work to life that encouraged me to be more expressive when reading aloud. As an extreme introvert I am often mortified by the prospect of speaking in front of a group, but this was one thing I have grown to enjoy. And it’s a skill I use daily when attempting to keep the attention of my five-year-old twins at story time.

Now go out and try it. If you’re in a writers’ group or have other writer friends, take turns reading each other’s work to the group so everyone can benefit. Print out a passage of your work, sit in a comfy chair, and read aloud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover.

Should I Get a Critique?

As fiction writers, the worlds and characters we have created are precious to us, built from our hearts and souls. Why would we ever want to pay someone to analyze it and potentially tear it apart, shattering our hopes and dreams of our beloved baby becoming the next bestseller? Getting a story critiqued is a scary thought, but if you have the means to pay a professional to do it, you should.

The number one reason to keep in mind is that no one else can see the story from your point of view. The story came from your head; everyone else is going to interpret the story differently from you, and differently from each other. You might think you have perfectly described your character’s appearance and were detailed with your settings, but what seems clear to you might not actually be so. The story flow might feel perfect and smooth to an author, but a reader might stumble. A second pair of eyes (at least) is invaluable for catching possible issues.

A couple years ago I finished a novel, which I was very proud of, and I was very attached to the story. However, I knew that I needed to develop things as the length was short, so I sent it off for a professional critique. What I got back was not what I expected.

The reader felt that my main character was vastly underdeveloped. They couldn’t connect with her, stating that by the end they didn’t know her any better than they did at the beginning. There was no story arc, things were repetitive, and they felt the setting was not quite believable. I was heartbroken. I had put so much love into this character and her story, and this professional just ripped it to shreds.

After I had a mini-meltdown, I reread the critique. I pondered everything that was said, compared it to the story, and came to an important conclusion: This reader was 100% correct.

Looking at your own story from the outside is extremely difficult, but once someone else does it for you, you can then step back and see it through their eyes. I saw the main character much differently; I saw all the flaws, and even questioned who she really was as a person. I looked at the timeline and locations throughout the story and realized how ridiculous it all was. My eyes—and mind—were opened.

Critiques are not entirely negative. A good critique will include positive insights and suggestions on how to build on the good things you have written. My reader connected with a secondary character, going so far as to suggest I make him the protagonist. He was developed, he was unique, and he had a story of his own to tell. Changing a main character and storyline is huge! Why would I want to dismantle the entire thing and rebuild from scratch?

This reader put possibilities in my head, and my writer brain took those ideas and put them together, building up a brand new story. A story with life. Without someone telling me what they saw as a reader, I never would have considered changing anything at all. Writers need to be receptive to feedback and use it as a tool to make the story the best it can be.

One last note: perhaps you are thinking of asking a friend or family member to be a “beta reader” because they might do it for free. DON’T DO IT. If you want truly objective and insightful feedback, give it to someone you don’t know and spend the money to do so. I didn’t even know the name of the person who read my story, or if they were male or female. It’s better that way. I have no regrets and will do it again.

Writing Dialogue, Part Four: Creating a Unique Voice

Previous posts in this series have focused on dialogue tags, but in this final part it’s time to discuss what is being said. In real life, people vary in the words they say, whether it is speaking in a dialect, inserting incorrect grammar, using jargon or trendy words, or having an accent. Many variables affect what people say, and it’s this variety that shapes their personalities and how others interact with them.

Characters are boring if not fully developed, and one of the best ways to develop a character is by focusing on their dialogue. Even if your story is not very dialogue driven, the smallest amount of speaking is crucial for making your character seem real in the mind of the reader. Readers need to relate to the people they are reading about, and hearing their voices brings them closer together.

Ask yourself who your character is. How old is he? What region of the world does he live in? What does he do for a living? What places does he visit, or with whom does he spend his time? Answers to these questions can determine the type of speech the character uses. Let’s look at some examples of different types of characters and what they might say.

Sixteen-year-old Stacy might say to her friends, “Oh my God you guys, can you even believe what Andy posted on Facebook? I mean, that’s like the most insane thing to happen ever.”

Seventy-year-old Evelyn might say to her friends, “My goodness, have you seen the news? It’s unbelievable what this world has come to.”

These two may have seen the same news, but are showing their surprise in very different ways based on their age. It shows us that Stacy is a very energetic teenager, and that Evelyn is a very composed yet disdainful older woman. Now let’s look at two characters that live in different regions of the United States.

Brian, living in the inner city, says, “Nah. Look, dude. That’s not how I roll.”

David, residing on a southern farm, says, “I’m tellin’ ya, mister, that’s just not how them things work.”

The first man is using cool, trendy words that make him sound confident, even a bit cocky. The second man is using a dialect that, though cliché, is authentic to the smooth southern style we expect to hear from people in rural southern America.

Let’s look at one more scenario where dialogue can depict the type of person a character is. Daniel is a college student, and upon arriving on campus he meets up with a friend. “Hey, what’s up, man?” Then he goes to class and says to his teacher, “Good morning, Mr. Smith.” This shows us that Daniel is not just all-around friendly, but also knows to address his friends differently from those of authority. Therefore we see Daniel as respectful. If he instead said, “What’s up, Smith?” we either see disrespect or that Daniel is close friends with his teacher.

Next time you start a new story or edit an existing one, stop when your characters speak. Analyze who they are and determine if what they are about to say fits them. Don’t put words in their mouth; let them speak for themselves.

Writing Dialogue, Part Three: The Evils of Adverbs

In Part Two of this series, we discussed how the use of he said/she said in dialogue tags is sufficient, as well as some ways to use descriptive language to replace tags entirely. Now we will dig deeper and analyze one of the biggest blemishes in fiction writing: the use of -ly adverbs in dialogue tags.

I’ll once again quote Stephen King from his book On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” That may seem a bit harsh, but it encompasses what many editors feel when such writing graces their desk. When writers use these words to describe how the character is speaking, it is a sign of fear, fear that the reader will not understand how the words are spoken. The manner of speaking is just as important as the words being said, and the easiest way to convey that is to use an all-encompassing adverb. But what is easy is not always what is best.

One great thing about the English language is that it is, in a way, customizable. Take pretty much any adjective, add an -ly to the end, and you got yourself a new word that you can use to describe how your character is speaking. Here are some examples:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said excitedly.

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said sorrowfully.

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said menacingly.

Do these three adverbs convey how the characters have spoken their words? Of course they do, and it’s easy to write dialogue this way and know the reader will understand. But so much more could be done to bring these pieces of dialogue to life. We want our readers to see the characters as they speak. Just like in real life, people use body language to show more about what they are saying, and we can use this to make the words more meaningful and bring descriptive strength to the story. Here’s how we can improve these lines of dialogue:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said, jumping up and down.

OR:

Joe jumped up and down. “I can’t wait for the party!”

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said, her voice wavering.

OR:

Samantha looked down at the ground, her eyes watering. “This is the worst day of my life.”

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said, his voice low enough to be a growl.

OR:

Tom leaned closer and bared his teeth. “Your days are numbered.”

As I wrote these revisions, I asked myself, “What would a person do if they said these words? What are they physically doing at that moment? How can we describe the tone of voice in vivid detail?” I imagined that Joe showed his excitement by jumping up and down. For Samantha and Tom, I first thought of how to describe sorrowful and menacing voices, then I thought of how each might physically display their feelings. By describing sorrow, we might feel more connected or empathetic toward Samantha, and describing menace could make us fear Tom, or feel more concerned for the character he is speaking to. And this is what we want our readers to experience.

If you find yourself using an -ly adverb in a dialogue tag, stop and envision what is happening to that character. Then bring the words, and thus your characters, to life.

In Part Four, I’ll focus on what it takes to give characters their own unique voice, and using these ideas to improve character development.