Conveying Emotion through Dialogue and Action

“I’ll never forget you,” the princess said, holding his hand.

“It’s not like I plan on going out there and dying,” the knight said back. He smiled. “Wait for me. I will return.”

The princess let his hand slip from her grip. She turned away from the knight. “My brother proclaimed the same. What of him?”

“Prince Eric is out there.” The knight placed his hands on her shoulders. “And I’m going to find him, and bring him home.”

The playwright walked out onto the stage. “Is everyone following along?” he asked the large theater audience. He gestured toward the princess. “She wants her love, the knight, to return safely, but she believes she has already lost her brother to the war.” He motioned to the knight. “The knight is a proud warrior who will not admit defeat before he has even left the castle. He tries to console the princess, for he loves her so, by assuring her that the prince is still alive.”

A man from the audience—third row back from the stage—stood. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted out, “We get it! You don’t need to explain it to us! We’re not morons!”

Although this is my own writing, the idea of a playwright coming out and explaining the emotion in a scene (wants, believes, will not admit, tries to console, assuring) comes from Chapter 5, “Dialogue Mechanics” in the book “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”.

The idea here is that explaining a character’s emotions in writing is like a playwright stopping a play to explain the characters’ emotions. Their dialogue and gestures should be enough to convey their emotions.

Let’s look at the scene from the play as if it were instead a novel where the writer is explaining the emotions as they happen.

“I’ll never forget you,” the princess said solemnly, holding his hand.

“It’s not like I plan on going out there and dying,” the knight said, disapproving of the princess’s tone. He smiled to counter the building tension. “Wait for me. I will return,” he spoke with energy.

The princess let his hand slip from her grip. She turned away from the knight. “My brother proclaimed the same,” she said gloomily. “What of him?” she pressured.

“Prince Eric is out there,” the knight assured. The knight placed his hands on her shoulders. “And I’m going to find him, and bring him home,” he said with certainty.

This version does two things. First, it explains the emotion as it happens. The princess gloomily said “My brother proclaimed the same”? How else would she say it? Happily? Frankly? With anger? Maybe she would say it with anger, in which case her actions need to support it.

“Wait for me. I will return.”

The princess threw his hand from her grip. She turned her back to the knight. “My brother proclaimed the same. What of him?”

Simply changing how she parts her hold from the knight impacts the paragraph. Even her turn takes on a whole new meaning. The words for the turn could have remained the same and had a different feel, but they’ve been rewritten to add to the different emotion. She isn’t simply turning away from him. She’s turning her back on him. There’s no need to write, “she spoke angerly” or “she said to him, angry at his words”; the words and motions work toward conveying her anger.

I admit that I—like most writers, I would imagine—went through my “anti-said” phase. Rather than Daniel saying, he interjects. Rather than Melanie saying, she says gratefully.

Replacing “said” all over the place can easily kill the flow of the story. I’ve read somewhere that no one sees “said”. The idea is that it’s as common as “the” and “a” and “to”, so there’s no notice of all the occurrences of said. But as soon as someone asserts, bellows, howls their anger; begs, inquires, queries their questions; gasps, hisses, whispers their words; barks, hollers, roars, wails their orders; or otherwise asserts, chastises, chuckles, drones, fusses, giggles, jokes, laughs, lies, moans, nags, pleas, prattles, proclaims, screams, screeches, or snarls their words every chance they get, these actions stand out. They are noticed. They interrupt the flow of the story just the same as the playwright who came out to ensure his audience knew what the characters in his play were feeling.

And then there are the -ly words. Don’t tell me Estelle spoke lovingly or angerly or listfully. Remove the adverb, and see if her dialogue still carries the same emotion. If not, then her words and the narrator’s telling of her emotion may not match up. Consider the following scene:

“I’ll give you all my money,” he said sarcastically to the knife-wielding thug, keeping his eyes away from the approaching police officer. “Just don’t kill me,” he said mockingly.

Let’s remove the adverbs, and try again.

“I’ll give you all my money,” he said to the knife-wielding thug, keeping his eyes away from the approaching police officer. “Just don’t kill me,” he said.

Does he still sound sarcastic? No? This is because his words and actions do not convey sarcasm. Because his words do not sound sarcastic, the narrator previously tried to tell us his sarcasm, rather than showing it. This goes back to the oft-mentioned idea of “show, don’t tell”. At best, he may sound desperate, even though there is a police officer sneaking up on the thug.

In order to correct this, we must either add in actions that convey emotion, or rewrite the dialogue to better convey it (or both).

His failed to restrain a smile. “Sure, I’ll give you all my money,” he said to the knife-wielding thug. He tried not to divert his eyes to the police officer slowly approaching. “You can have my money, my credit cards, and my house, just please, oh please, don’t kill me.”

Not only does the man’s dialogue show his sarcasm now, but his actions better support it. He’s trying not to smile, as he knows a police officer is about to get the thug. As he tries not to look at the officer (potentially alerting the thug), the man keeps talking, trying to buy time for the officer. His further dialogue replaces the narrative that he “mocked” the thug by instead having him offer the thug with more things than the thug could realistically take. Using stolen credit cards doesn’t get someone very far if the owner’s had a chance to report them as stolen. Taking ownership of a house will get a thug nowhere good. Because of these reasons, the thug is being mocked without the narrator having to say he’s being mocked.

I often write he said, she said, then I color the description of dialogue on a following draft. I’m putting my effort into the wrong area, and in turn am working backwards. Instead, I should freely use adverbs in the first draft (the idea is to get the scene and emotion down), and then I can remove the adverbs and fill out the scenes in detail on the following drafts.

2 thoughts on “Conveying Emotion through Dialogue and Action

  1. Dani

    I found this through bing and found it very helpful actually. I’ve found that I do alot of the things you say not to do in the story I’m writing. However, I also like the tip at the end to write the adverbs in the first draft and then remove them in the second. Again, very helpful! Thank you!

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  2. Christopher Fritz Post author

    I’m glad it was helpful! I’m sure there are stories that do fine with adverbs, but I find my stories are better once I remove them.

    The important thing to remember is that a first draft is a first draft, so it can be as messy and adverb-filled, and switching tenses and character viewpoints as it can be, and it’s fine so long as you can finish that first draft. Clean-up follows after in later drafts =)

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