I have an online job moderating stories kids write on a family-friendly storytelling platform. Which means I read a lot of stories written by very new and young writers. One thing that drives me crazy is the number of adverbs they use.
The stories are full of phrases like "Jonah yelled angrily" and "Sarah smiled happily. They also say things like "said sadly" and "whispered rudely." But these kiddos are young, so they'll learn. Today, we're going to talk about why those sentences are problems and what to do about them.
Adverbs are one of those things that once you see them, you can't un-see them. If you want to see what I mean, find a copy of any of the Harry Potter books after reading this post and look for a page with lots of dialogue. You'll see why writing has ruined them for me.
The first two are redundant. Yelled implies anger. Smiled implies happy. You don't need to tell the reader twice.
The second two aren't redundant. There's many ways to say or whisper something. But there are thousands of verbs in the English language. More than you will ever need to use. But with that many options, it's highly unlikely you won't find one that fits your needs without having to tag an adverb to it.
For example, "said sadly" could be "muttered." "Whispered rudely" could be "hissed."
But those aren't great options either. Let's backtrack a little and go back to the first example, yelled angrily. In the stories I moderate, he full statement might be something like "I HATE YOU!" he yelled angrily.
First of all, don't put yelling in all caps. It's not necessary. Second, the exclamation point implies yelling. The words imply anger. The all caps imply both. So yelled angrily is doubly redundant.
A better way to put this would just be "I hate you!" with no dialogue tag. If you really need one, use yelled. Otherwise, try to put an action beat instead.
Now, if you take the adverb out and the sentence is no longer easily interpreted the way it was before, something is wrong with the sentence. "I don't want to go," she said sadly. could be different from "I don't want to go," she said. You need to show the reader this character is sad. Context will probably help, but there's other things you can do. You could change said to a sadder verb, but that's a cop-out. That's telling.
Is there a way to change the dialogue to be sadder? Or add an action beat? What about these:
She looked at the floor. "I don't want to go."
"I don't...I don't want to go."
She took a deep breath so she wouldn't cry. "I don't want to go."
All those show her sadness without saying "said sadly." All I did was add some action and change the punctuation of the sentence. I didn't change the words. But I want you to try that. How can you rephrase "I don't want to go" into a sad sentence without using punctuation or action? Feel free to comment or message me with what you come up with.
Often, writers who add adverbs after all their dialogue are writers who don't trust their readers yet. Or perhaps they don't trust themselves. They think the reader won't know the character is angry, so they have to add angrily. Maybe they think their writing isn't good enough for readers to know the character is angry.
Trust yourself and trust your reader. If the words are angry and the scene has the right tone, your reader will know.
I have more to say on this topic, but it's getting kinda long. So let's pick up next week with contemplating if said is really dead how often you need dialogue tags.
What are your thoughts on adverbs? Do you find yourself using phrases like "yelled angrily?"