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.

Writing Dialogue, Part Two: The Power of Said

In Part One of this series we discussed the ideal placement of the dialogue tag. Part Two begins analyzing the guts of the tag, specifically the use of said. I’ll quote Stephen King from his excellent book, On Writing:  “. . . while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Now, I won’t be going into adverbs until Part Three, but the truth in the latter part of this quote deserves its own focus.

Anecdote time: When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had the class do a brainstorming project where we were to come up with as many words as possible to replace said in a dialogue tag, and were encouraged to use this variety in our writing. My fifth-grade mind thought that was a great idea; my grown-up writer/editor mind pictures The Scream painting by Edvard Munch. Variety is good in writing, but there is a time and a place for it.

Examples of decent variety in dialogue tags would be things like whispered, shouted, or mumbled. I list these because it can be difficult to use context or description to convey the style of speaking to the reader. However, it can be done, and can even bring more descriptive qualities to the scene in which the dialogue is taking place.

Consider this first example:

“We have to keep this a secret,” Sam whispered. “It could get us in trouble.”

There’s really nothing wrong with this quote, but we can revise it slightly:

Sam lowered his voice to a whisper. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Or:

Sam leaned closer to Julie’s ear. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Both of these revisions remove the tag altogether. The first one still states that the words were whispered, but it is used more like a noun rather than a verb. But verbs are great, you might say. They convey action! Indeed, but let’s use that verb action differently, such as in the last revision. Sam leaning in to Julie’s ear shows the reader what the characters are doing and can infer that the words are spoken in a whisper because he is so close. Readers are smart like that.

Let’s also look at some examples of how to do similar tricks with shouted and mumbled dialogue:

“I’m going crazy!” Dave shouted. –> Dave took a deep breath and tugged at his hair. “I’m going crazy!”

Not only do we see Dave showing his exasperation, but the exclamation point is what does the shouting for us.

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Emma mumbled. –> Looking away, Emma kept her voice low. “This is the worse idea I’ve ever heard.”

In this example, we see Emma’s reaction and are prepared for her tone of voice before she speaks.

If you find yourself wanting to use verbs other than said, consider whether you can use descriptive action to replace the tag. If your dialogue and the surrounding prose are strong enough, then said is all you need. In Part Three I’ll dive into adverbs in dialogue tags, and how to avoid the urge to use them.

Why Do I Need a Copyeditor?

As a writer myself, I understand the feeling of wanting to protect your precious manuscript with sword and shield against anyone who might have any thought of making the slightest change to it. This can be even more so for indie authors looking to self-publish, as this route of publishing offers the greatest amount of control over what the final product turns out to be. Because of this, indie authors are the ones most in need of copyeditors.

But why would a writer willingly pay good money for someone to change what they’ve poured onto the page?

A couple years ago I was approached by an author who was desperate for help with his autobiography. He said he had had a number of other editors work on it, but they had done a poor job and he was frustrated. I took on the job and indeed it needed a lot of help. It wasn’t until the project was completed that I found out exactly why he had been so upset.

He had self-published his book on Amazon and received a negative review regarding the “uneducated” writing style. That review is permanent.

It’s unfortunate that in order to accept that his writing needed more help than what cheap editors on freelance bidding websites provided, he had to endure the embarrassment of having someone publicly shame his intelligence. No writer should have to experience that. But many readers expect perfection; they want the story to take them in and want to walk in the shoes of the characters without stumbling on problematic sentence structure or getting lost in a confusing plot. What makes perfect sense to us as authors may not make sense to a reader. And as any good editor will tell you, we are advocates for the reader.

Since he updated his publication with the newly edited version, his book has been quite successful, with many wonderful reviews focusing on the story and how powerful it was. So if you’re asking yourself whether you need a copyeditor, imagine what your review section on Amazon might look like. If you think it will be any less than five stars, get an editor. If you are certain people will love it as is and there is nothing wrong with it, definitely get an editor. Invest in your success. Your writing is worth it.