Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 22, 2016

Adverbs in Dialogue

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autocrithanging

A major pitfall of an amateur writer is the use of adverbs in dialogue tags.  Adverbs are those –ly words that modify verbs.

autocritadverbs in dialog

For example:

quickly asked.

said angrily.

wistfully said.

happily replied.

In fiction, adverbs tend to weaken your writing.  So the general rule in fiction is to eliminate as many adverbs as possible, and replace them with stronger, more specific words.

So what do you do with adverbs found by AutoCrit?  With dialogue, it’s not as simple as just replacing the adverb.  An adverb in a dialogue tag means you probably have to rewrite the dialogue itself.

Here’s why:

Writers often rely on adverbs in a dialogue tag to convey emotion and tone.  But that should happen in the dialogue itself, not in the dialogue tag.

For example:

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.

This simply tells us that Simon is angry. But that emotion isn’t really demonstrated through his actions or the dialogue itself.

Remember what we said earlier about dialogue tags – readers read right over them.  Their only purpose is to tell the reader who is speaking.

So if you want the reader to feel Simon’s anger, you have to show them – through the dialogue itself.

Here’s how you could do it:

“You disgust me. This conversation is over,” Simon said.

Here, Simon’s words are angry, so you don’t need to rely on the adverb “angrily” to convey that.  The dialogue is stronger and the emotion is clear.

You could also include some brief actions or descriptions to eliminate the adverb and convey the character’s emotion.

For example:

Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over.” 

The actions and description here help show how Simon feels, so we can easily eliminate the word “angrily” from that dialogue tag.

Here’s what you don’t want to do, however:

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said, angry.

This replaces the adverb, but we still have the same basic problem – telling instead of showing.  So don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re all set just because you don’t have an –ly word there.

Adverbs often become crutches, even for accomplished writers.  But it’s lazy writing, and a huge red flag for agents and editors.

Here’s how to test yourself: Read your dialogue out loud without any dialogue tags.

If the lines of dialogue do not convey the emotion you’re trying to express – then it means you are relying on adverbs, and your dialogue needs to be rewritten.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. I detest and avoid all fiction that shows instead of telling. Consequently, there is no way you can deter me from using adverbs shamelessly and religiously.

  2. Authors in other countries sprinkle their dialog with adverbs. Somebody here in the U.S. decided it was a no-no, maybe around the time Tom Swifties came out in the 70s. I say, use a balance. Some scenes don’t need to make a big deal out of emotion. If “angrily” does the trick, then move on. (My opinion, of course.)


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