Guest Post: Showing Emotion In Dialogue-heavy Scenes

I decided I wanted my first guest post to be a special one, so I invited Angela Ackerman, author and blogger full of all sorts of of wonderful tips and tricks to bring life to your writing to grace these pages.  (Note:  I was going to scatter this excellent article with images of Collin Firth doing his silent-but-oh-so-expressive Darcy best, but then thought Angela's excellent words should to the talking.)  Enjoy! 

Showing Emotion In Dialogue-heavy Scenes

Very few things pull people in like conversation. After all, when someone speaks, they are making themselves vulnerable to others. How? Because words are steeped in thoughts, beliefs and emotions. They have meaning. Power.

When I talk to someone, what I’m really doing is sharing a piece of myself with them. And they in turn listen, weigh my words, and then judge me by what I say. It’s a bit intimidating when you think about it, which is why most people think carefully about what to share, and what to hold back. Protecting ourselves from feeling exposed is instinctive, because it is tied to survival.

This creates a big problem for writers trying to form realistic dialogue scenes. Our goal is for readers to pick up on the thought process and emotions of a character so they can understand motives. But if dialogue is too honest, and characters share too much about what they feel, the conversation will ring false. Add this to the complication of Point of View (where the reader is not always privy to a character’s direct thoughts) and suddenly showing emotion becomes extra challenging!

So how do we show readers what a character is really feeling when they don’t say it in dialogue?

The answer of course, is body language.

Over 93% of communication is nonverbal. Think about that for a second--those conversations you have with friends, the heart-to-hearts with loved ones. All the things you have told to your spouse, the emotions you have verbally shared. This is but a tiny fraction of actual communication.

Our bodies are speaking for us constantly, even though we don’t realize it. When we are trying to hide how we feel, our body language provides ‘cues’ that others will pick up on. We might become less animate. Our voices may lower or tighten. Our posture may shift, our attention might stray or maybe we’ll start fiddling with a button or loose string. Each of these is a clue that something is amiss.

Adding body language to your dialogue scenes will help you get across a character’s emotions even when they are determined to hide what they feel.

Here are 5 ways to reveal a character’s true emotions during dialogue:

Opposites Attract. When a character is speaking without conviction, agreeing for the sake of it or even passing off a lie, show how what he says does not mesh with what his body does. For example, if he’s agreeing with another’s suggestion, show his affirmative response: “Sure, sounds good,” but his tone is flat, or his shoulders are bowed or his arm movements and hand gestures lack strength.

Facial Expressions.  Normally, the face does not offer a lot of options as far as emotional expression goes, but I believe the exception to that is in dialogue. A well placed grimace, eye that go wide or a tugging of the ear can go a long way.  Facial expressions are often the body’s first reaction to another’s dialogue. They can reveal how characters feel about what they are hearing.

Personal Distance. Everyone has an amount of personal space that feels comfortable to them. When we feel at ease, the space shrinks, but when we grow tense, the need to create more space is strong. Show this need, and what a character does to increase or erase space as they take part in a conversation.

Bearing, Posture and Movement. How a character stands, sits, their posture, bearing and how their body moves within their environment is an important indicator as to how they feel. Confidence is a stiff back, exposed neck and eye contact. Doubt is a bent neck, hesitating movements, a slow stride and dropped glances. What a body does is a mirror to how a person feels, so describe your character’s actions as they engage in the conversation.

Voice! Sometimes what is said is not as revealing as how a character says it. Does their voice rise or lower in pitch? Do they rush through their words, or offer them only a few at a time? Do they employ sarcasm to mask a deeper emotion? Is there a hesitation or warble present? Most of us do not have as much control over our voices as we would like, so it is an effective and realistic way to reveal shifting emotions with our characters.

How about you? What techniques do you use to show your characters’ emotions during dialogue scenes? Let me know in the comments!


Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion.


E. Arroyo said...

Some great info. I like observing people and their movements and match them to an emotion. No, I'm not a peeping tom, watching movies and soap operas help. =)

Scot C. Morgan said...

Thanks for the ideas. I'll near then in mind when writing.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks E & Scot! I hope this helps!

And yes, observation is great! I know it feels like we're being all creepy, but we aren't!

:) Happy writing, and a giant thank you to Penny for inviting me to her blog. :)


Debra Erfert said...

This is a great post, and only reaffirms what I believe about writing a good story. I didn't have the "Showing Emotion in Dialogue" but I clicked over to Amazon and ordered it--it paperback instead of e-book just for kicks. One can never have too many books, can one?

I read one comment on a Facebook talk tank where a person said only dialogue is needed for a good book. I kept my fingers in check and didn't respond.

Unknown said...

Heading to bookstore tonight. I'm hoping they have a copy of the thesaurus. :)

cleemckenzie said...

Body language is perfect for revealing emotion. I especially like to use it when there are different cultures involved in my stories. Body language can be a great source of character development and when put into an intercultural context, humorous or disastrous.

Lots to consider with this.

Angela Ackerman said...

Debra, hope you enjoy the Emotion Thesaurus! Make sure to grab the free PDF on our blog (sidebar) called Emotion Amplifiers. This will help you create more pressure on your characters so they have a more reactive response to emotion!

Sarah, let me know if you can order it. I am hoping the extended distribution has kicked in, but it is s-l-o-w. :)

Lee, this is so true. And it's good to know the cultural differences. What means one thing in one country may be different in others. For example, if you put your face up to someone in North America, most people take that as an aggressive act, but in some Middle Eastern cultures, this is a sign of friendship and respect.

Debra Erfert said...

I forgot to post something where I used body language. Here is a little piece of my current WIP. Just so you know, the woman whining is drunk and was almost the next victim of a serial killer before my savvy main character stopped him from taking her.
“Hey—” she whined, “you better let me go, or, or I’ll call the cops!”

“Lady—” Alex told her, not breaking his stride, “we are the cops.” They stopped away from the crowd and let her go. “What is your name, ma’am?”

“I don’t have to tell you.” She slurred her words as she lifted the strap of her handbag back up over her shoulder. It slipped down again. When she saw the rest of us staring at her, she must’ve gotten upset, and yelled, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

I remembered some sage advice from one of my professors: never argue with fools and drunks. But maybe the drunk could be tricked.

I pushed Alex aside, and stepped only a few inches away from the woman’s face. With my fists on my hips I yelled, “Just what were you going to do with my husband, you—you home wrecker!”

The woman’s eyes blew open wide, but only for a moment. She squinted and pointed her finger in my face. Her drunken, sassy attitude returned in force.
“Listen, honey. Philip didn’t say anything about being married.” She stared down at my shoes then proceeded to glare at me all the way up to my face. “I guess he isn’t getting enough at home with you that he has to come lookin’ for some, and honey, my husband really don’t care where I sleep at night.”

I relaxed my shoulders and gazed into Alex’s face in complete satisfaction.


No, I don't see where the Emotional Amplifiers PDF is located, but I'll look again.

Angela Ackerman said...

I really like the image of the purse strap sliding off and her finger up in the other woman's face--they both really gave me a clear image. Little details can make a big difference!

The Emotion Amplifiers is in the sidebar with a blue 'free download' button. Hope it helps you too!

In fact, just thinking about it--'inebriation' is one of the amplifiers I cover in it! LOL

Unknown said...

Thanks, everyone, for your super comments, and huge thanks to Angela for this great guest post which has shot up into the favorites stratosphere virtually overnight. Her book is an essential tool for writers.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thank you so much, Penny for having me here and letting me meet all your readers! Wishing all of you incredible success and satisfaction in all that you do. :)

Unknown said...

Angela, you're very welcome, and the pleasure is all mine. Your post rocketed to the all-time most popular in less than a week. Thanks for bringing so many new visitors to Perpetual Chaos.