Editing Notes: How to Handle Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

Deep in the throes of my first-draft revision, I’ve taken a serious, abyss-gazing-back-at-me look at my love of adverbs.  Because almost all writing advice floating around out there equates adverbs with evil.  And where I seem to be guiltiest of adverb overuse is in dialogue tags.

“I know you’ve been having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan said gently.

So let’s take a look at a few ways I could revise this.

“I know you’ve been having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan said.

The first would be to chop the adverb off like a dead branch from a tree.  If the context provided by the dialogue itself is enough to imply Ryan would say it gently, or if there’s tonal cues in the surrounding paragraphs, then it can go.  Or if it’s simply not important at that moment that he’s speaking gently.

“I know you’ve been having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan said, his voice gentle.

In this second version, I’ve replaced the adverb with a short descriptive phrase.  I’ve traded one word for three, but adding words during the rewriting process is just as vital as cutting them.  A few extra words here and there can slow the pace where you don’t necessarily want the reader to blast straight through, like during an intimate conversation about the characters’ feelings.

“I know you’re having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan said.  The gentleness in his voice made Bethany want to confide in him.

A third option is to take version #2 a step farther and turn the description into a whole sentence.  To combat potential word bloat, I’ve focused on the other character’s reaction to his voice, which reveals something about her, in addition to providing the “gentle” to his voice.  Double duty sentences!

Now, moving on to the prickly and problematic solution, where the fix for the adverb conflicts with another sage piece of writing advice: Stick to the word “said.”  Because in weak writing, adverbs are often an indicator that your verbs need to be stronger.  But “said” is my verb here, and  switching it out for another dialogue tag brings up its own set of issues.

“I know you’re having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan whispered.

But, see, in my mind, he wasn’t whispering.  That’s not the same as “said gently.”  And in this case, I don’t think it’s better.  Alternately:

“I know you’re having a hard time with this lately,” Ryan breathed.

Still not right!  I could go through any number of a giant list of “said” words…but I may not find a good choice.  There are definitely times when this strategy works, but I don’t think it will here.  (Though if someone has a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it!)

Dialogue tag advice generally advocates for “said” because it’s a neutral verb that disappears into the text, keeping the conversation moving forward.  But long passages where everything is tagged with “said” can become repetitive, almost sing-song–whereas passages heavily peppered with alternatives can be tiresome, because those tags jump out and demand the reader’s attention in a way that “said” doesn’t.  So use them, but use them wisely: where you want the reader to pause and pay attention to the tone.

On that note, I’ve tried to limit myself to a small stable of tags: said, asked, replied, and answered, with others showing up occasionally for added punch.  I like replied and answered for situations where one character speaks, but there’s either substantial action or description separating one line of dialogue from the next–both prompt the reader to remember what the previous line was.

Lastly, getting back to the adverbs where we started, the final option is to leave the line as it stands.  Sometimes characters speak gently, or softly, or warily.  Sometimes you don’t want to replace it with extra words, when you need to keep the pace snappy, but still want your reader to be certain of the tone.  Sometimes, adverbs are actually your friends.

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