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.

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