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Adverbs in Dialogue

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

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 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 might 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 you’re all set just because you don’t have an –ly word there.

Adverbs often become crutches, even for accomplished writers.  But they're 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 by themselves do not convey the emotion you’re trying to express, that means you're relying on adverbs and your dialogue needs to be rewritten.

Exception to the rule

Of course, every rule has an exception, and here’s the one for adverbs in dialogue tags. If the tone or emotion of the dialogue could be confusing or unclear to the reader, you might use an adverb in a dialogue tag. This strategy is most often used when the character speaks sarcastically or ironically, jokes, or struggles to be polite.

For example, consider this dialogue:

“Maybe I should come upstairs for awhile,” he said.

“No, thank you,” she said.

Let’s say your protagonist is at the end of an awful first date.  Her date suggests he come upstairs with her, and she replies with: “No, thank you.”

That “No, thank you” doesn't tell us much, does it? We’d have to assume she’s politely declining. But what if the same line of dialogue were rewritten as the example below?

“No, thank you,” she said emphatically.  

Now we see there’s force behind her words and she's making sure he doesn't come upstairs.

The adverb makes her tone clearer even though her words are exactly the same.

The bottom line

You want to use adverbs as sparingly as possible. In general, it’s better to use stronger, more specific words and descriptions.