It made a generation fall in love with Gilmore Girls, and almost destroyed Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3.

Dialogue can make or break a story. When it is good, we are joyfully entangled in it. When it is bad, the story can be painful to read.

How to Write Dialogue Without Using Adverbs

To spice it up, we will often turn to descriptors—adjectives and adverbs the convey the emotion we hope the reader will hear. But these “ly” words can break a reader’s flow, making our story feel disjointed.

Never fear! There is hope! If we start with a good foundation and sprinkle some action, we can write dialogue that sings.

Here are three steps to crafting vivid, believable dialogue:

Step One: Start with a Firm Foundation

Building dialogue in your story is like building a Lego castle. You do it one brick at a time, and every brick matters. Like Crissle from the Read says, “Words mean things.”

Step one in writing great dialogue is picking the right words.  A red brick in a yellow wall stands out, so we need to make sure the placement of things that catch the eye is intentional. Two sentences that express the same sentiment may carry very different emotional charges depending on how the words are constructed.

For example, let’s say I wanted to ask you how your day was. Here are five ways I might ask, each with a different emotional feel.

“Welcome home. How was work?”

“How’d it go today?”

“Did you survive?”

“So?”

“Well?”

To continue the example, let’s say you wanted to respond back and tell me there was nothing special about the day. Here are five ways you could convey that to me with different emotional tones.

“What do you want me to say? It was work.”

“Nothing to report.”

“I’m not sure what you want me to say. It was just a normal day.”

“You know.”

“Why do you ask?”

A trick to help you decide if you have the right words

During the day, when I’m not writing fiction, I write for a company that simulates difficult conversations. When we (the writing team) are working on dialogue, we will often say to each other, “Put it in your mouth.”

Different phrases will feel different coming off your tongue.

For example, read the five sentences I wrote above. Pay attention to your natural intonation. Did they feel different?

Step Two: Show. Don’t Tell.

Now that we have words we like, to take our dialogue to the next level, let’s sprinkle in some action. Same rule applies—no descriptors. Don’t worry. We don’t need them.

As an example, I’ll take the examples I used above and add actions to them:

“Welcome home. How was work?” he said with a smile.

He greeted her with a hug. “How’d it go today?” he said.

“Did you survive?” he said with a wink.

“So?” he said without looking up from the book he was reading.

He was waiting for her at the door when she arrived. “Well?” he said.

And the responses:

“What do you want me to say? It was work,” she said with a sigh.

“Nothing to report,” she said with her eyes locked on her cell phone.

“I’m not sure what you’re after,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “It was just a normal day.”

“You know,” she said as she kissed his cheek.

“Why do you ask?” she said as she pretended to look for something in her purse.

Step Three: Mix and Match

Often after I’ve practiced dialogue in this way, I’ll mix and match them for fun. It’s amazing how a story can be born from one exchange.

“Welcome home. How was work?” he said with a smile.

“I’m not sure what you’re after,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “It was just a normal day.”

Or another:

“So?” he said without looking up from the book he was reading.

“Nothing to report,” she said with her eyes locked on her cell phone.

And one more:

He was waiting for her at the door when she arrived. “Well?” he said.

“Why do you ask?” she said as she pretended to look for something in her purse.

Write Actions, Not Adverbs

We don’t need the crutches of “ly” and adjectives to make our dialogue come to life. The right words flavored with a little action will turn simple exchanges into symphonies of emotion and connection.

Readers want to be captivated. All we need to do is pick our brush and begin painting them a picture.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to create your own two-sentence scene.

Pick a mundane sentence, like “How was your day?” or “Where are you going?” Write the sentence and its response four different ways. Each time, keep the same intention, but change the words so the sentence feels different.

Add a sentence or two of action to each one, then mix and match your exchanges to create a two-sentence scene. When you’re finished, share your practice in the comments, and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Jeff Elkins
Jeff Elkins

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he’d be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff’s urban fantasy novella “The Window Washing Boy.”