Improving Dialogue: The End of Adverbs

Updated on March 6, 2017

What is the key to excellent dialogue?

Let's take a sample test to see if you already know:

"I love you," Jared said shakily.

Why does the above line not only weaken your writing, but take weaken the power of your dialogue?

Answer? Because it uses an adverb.

Adverbs are a dialogue crutch.

We shouldn't need to say that Jared's "I love you" was shaky.

We can show his nerves through his speech - maybe, the language in his dialogue becomes clipped and terse unlike his usual meandering way of speaking, or he could fumble over simple words.

Or, support his dialogue with action - how Jared repeatedly checks his watch against the clock over the cafe door, how he fiddles with his keys on the table and annoys the woman studying next to him with the incessant noise.

Adverbs are a lost opportunity to draw your reader further into the experience of your character.

Every time you see an adverb in someone else's writing or your own, think of how much richer their stories would be if they replaced every adverb with an experience for the readers.

Rather than having them read the word "shakily", help readers experience how Jared had to change shirts before leaving his loft because he'd already sweated through the first one, and brought a jacket to wear to cover his pit stains just in case. Which now makes him feel stupid anyways, because now he's got a black blazer with brown pants which she'll notice way too much, and he ends up getting a pumpkin spice latte even though he hates pumpkin, and now there's a coffee stain on his polo and this is exactly why he should've listened to Shaun in the first place and taken her out to dinner.

These are the types of details and dialogue readers want to experience and empathize with.

So, are adverbs completely useless?

Not completely.

Often in first drafts I use adverbs to help me mark and remember the state of emotion a character is in during a certain scene or experience. Adverbs then become quite useful for refreshing my memory when I go back to edit.

And, though I am loath to admit it, there are a few times where rarely (almost never) you can improve your dialogue with an adverb. But I would be careful. Very careful. Like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits very careful.

Still, experiment with it. Bring about the end of adverbs in your writing and see your improvement.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.