The Adverb Crutch.

Amateur writers wind up succumbing to at least one major pitfall, the use of adverbs in dialogue tags.  Adverbs are those pesky –ly words that modify verbs.

For example:

happily replied.

said angrily.

quickly asked.

pensively said.

In fiction, adverbs tend to weaken your writing. The general rule for fiction of any genre is to eliminate as many adverbs as possible, replacing them with stronger, more specific words.

What do we do with adverbs? (In a perfect world they would cease to exist.). With dialogue, you cannot just replace the adverb. An adverb in a dialogue tag means, in most cases,  you’ll need to rewrite the dialogue itself.

Here’s why:

Amateur writers (but not limited to them) often rely on adverbs in a dialogue tag to convey emotion and tone. That is wrong. A good writer will make that happen in the dialogue itself, and will not rely on the dialogue tag.

For example:

“I’ve had enough of this,” Karnic shouted angrily.

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

Remember, dialogue tags have one purpose, to tell the reader who is speaking. Readers read right over them. You want your reader to feel Karnis’s anger, you have to show them–through the dialogue itself.

Here’s how you might accomplish that:

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

Karnic’s dialogue is stronger and his emotion is clear.  Kaenic’s words are angry, so you don’t need to rely on the adverb angrily to convey that.

Including some brief actions or descriptions to eliminate the adverb and convey the character’s emotion brings more depth to your story and power to a scene.

For example:

Kaenic shoved his chair back and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough!” He clenched his jaw. “This discussion is over.”

The actions and description here help show how Kaenic feels, eliminating the use of the word angrily from the dialogue tag.

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

“I’ve had enough,” Kaenic said, angry.

This replaces the adverb, but we still have the same basic problem: You are telling the reader instead of letting the reader feel the characters emotions through their actions. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re all set just because you don’t have one of those pesky –ly word in there.

Adverbs become crutches, even for accomplished writers.  They’re lazy writing and a huge red flag for agents and editors.

Here’s how good way to test your writing. Read your dialogue out loud without any dialogue tags. If the lines of dialogue by themselves don’t convey the emotion you’re trying to draw from your readers, that means you’re relying on adverbs and your dialogue needs to be rewritten.

Every Rule has An Exception

Of course, there’s always an exception to every rule. Here’s the one for adverbs in dialogue tags (though a good editor will flag it and ask you to rework the sentence.). If the tone or emotion of the dialogue is 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 piece of dialogue:

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

“No, thank you,” Alicia said.

Let’s assume your protagonist is at the end of an awful first date when he suggests he should come upstairs with her. Her reply of,  “No, thank you.” could be taken many ways. So in this case the “No, thank you.” doesn’t tell us much, of Alicia’s emotional or mental state, 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 the reader gets there’s force behind her words, she’s making sure he doesn’t come upstairs.

The adverb makes her tone clearer even though her words are exactly the same.
As I said. There are other ways so as to eliminate the adverb.

“No-thank-you!” she said, then turned and stabbed the elevator call button with her index finger.

Linking the words with a dashes and using the exclamation point add emotion to the sentence. The action of turning and stabbing the call button shows frustration, anger, etc.

Bottom Line

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.