Adverbial Dialogue Tags Articles / On Dialogue

We’ve all see it and a good number of us are guilty of it. That’s right. I’m talking about adverbial dialogue tags. I know some of you are thinking this is another article about creative dialogue tags. Well, it’s not. This quick tip is about using adverbs to describe how dialogue is said. Aside from the obvious advice to minimize your use of adverbs by choosing stronger words, the use of adverbial dialogue tags presents the reader with a weak description and oftentimes results in telling instead of showing. Take the following example:

Cassidy pushed the solid oak door open with her foot and wrestled an oversized teddy bear into the kitchen.
“Why did you leave without telling me?” Damian asked petulantly.
“You said you didn’t like garage sales,” she retorted angrily.

In this example an adverb (petulantly) is used to describe Damian’s tone of voice and indirectly tells the reader how Damian is feeling. The issue here is that by adding this to the dialogue tag, the author tells the reader how Damian feels and shows nothing. Furthermore, the passage tells the reader that Cassidy is angry, but doesn’t show anything. Because the adverbial dialogues tag tell the reader how the characters are feeling, some authors will neglect to fully develop the scene by showing through behavior, dialogue, and body language what the characters are feeling. This can lead to anemic scenes.

Instead of telling the reader how the characters are speaking, show what they are doing and let their actions fill in the blanks so that the reader can see what’s going on and decide how the characters are feeling.

Cassidy pushed the solid oak door open with her foot and wrestled an oversized teddy bear into the kitchen. She almost knocked Damian off his stool.
“Watch it,” he said, grabbing the edge of the counter.
“Oops, sorry.” She started to grin but froze about halfway between full grin and polite smile, stopping somewhere around pained.
Damian glared and slid off the stool. “Why did you leave without me?” He was a full head taller than Cassidy, and with his arms folded across his chest, he was downright scary.
She opened her mouth, snapped it shut, opened it again, and took a deep breath before sighing. “You said you didn’t like garage sales.” She dropped the teddy bear on the yellowed linoleum with a soft thud.

By striking adverbial dialogue tags from your manuscript and replacing them with narrative full of action and emotion, you will make better word choices and fill out those scenes with the visual cues to keep your reader engaged with your story. You will also use fewer adverbs, which is always a bonus in my book. 🙂

Now… go write something!


  1. What a great article and gives a clear understanding of show versus tell which so many of us struggle with! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is definitely something I will be looking at in my third draft of my WIP. It is too easy to take the lazy way out. Thanks for the post.

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