Show, Don’t Tell: Revealing True Emotion In Dialogue

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 we talk to someone, what we’re really doing is sharing a piece of ourselves with them. And they in turn listen, weigh our words, and then judge us on some level by what we say. It’s a bit intimidating when you break it down like that, which is why most people think carefully about what to share, and what to hold back. Protecting ourselves from feeling exposed is an immediate response because it ties into our survival instincts.

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 better understand their motives and gain insight into who they are. 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.

talkingUnlike this picture, conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People move, gesture, shift and pose. In fact, 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 person’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, eyes 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 person’s dialogue. They can reveal how characters feel about what they are hearing or seeing. Just remember, less is more. Facial expressions cannot support the emotional weight of an exchange alone, and should be used with care.

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.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]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.

Additional links to explore:

Hidden Emotions: How to Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want to Show

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Writing Realistic Dialogue

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

~ Angela

Image by Efraimstochter via Pixabay

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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20 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell: Revealing True Emotion In Dialogue

  1. thelonelyauthorblog says:

    Great post that all writers need to read.

  2. Mary Ellen Latela says:

    Great guidance for dialogue which is real! Thanks so much!

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  5. Really great, helpful post that came at just the right time! Sometimes I get bogged down in showing rather than telling…afraid that I am overdoing it or repeating the same thing all the time. Less is truly more!

  6. Saumya says:

    This article describes what I try to work on through my writing. Thank you for conveying it so eloquently!!

  7. Yet another right-on post.

    I’ve been away from here for far too long and have made it a part of my daily RSS feed. Don’t plan to miss anything any more.

  8. :Donna Marie says:

    This is all the kind of stuff we need to keep in mind, but my brain will never be able to keep the zillion things in my head. Thank God for lists, and charts and THESAURUSES! 😀

  9. Sarah Rolph says:

    Great post! Thank you

  10. Devon says:

    I have been struggling lately with feeling like I show TOO MUCH, and specifically in just the way you are talking about. I feel like my characters are ALWAYS grimacing or throwing their hands up or perspiring or something. I would rather just have people speak and perhaps the setting or other details fill us in on the honesty of everything. But it might have something to do with having worked on the same manuscript for so long, and to do with reading Sherlock Holmes with all his character’s wacky death-expressions and fainting and brain fevers. Somebody has a brain fever? You know they are a victim. An aquiline nose. Royal. Etc.

    • HL Gibson says:

      I agree, Devon. How much is too much? How does one maintain a good balance? Does every speaking situation need to have the showing cues of body language?

    • With show and tell, it is really about showing the RIGHT things. Showing everything will bog down the pace and stall the story. Show too little, and the reader will not connect with your character or really invest in the story.

      I always advocate that when it comes to emotion, a single piece of emotional showing (or two) is so much better than a paragraph of it. Do less with more. This doesn’t mean to only show fear by saying, Miranda shivered. Rather, write a sensory description that is active, and an exact depiction of what your character feels in the moment. This might be a piece of body language, a thought, a visceral sensation, or a combination that weaves right into the action. It is how you get these beats of emotional showing across in a fresh way that really pulls readers in. Here’s a quick example of how to weave in bits of emotional showing into the sensory description of an action scene:

      Far from the glow of streetlights, the only way to track Alex was the hammer of his boots against the forest floor, a sound that drew closer no matter how hard or fast Miranda ran. She risked a look back just as the ground dipped, and fell. Her wrists sunk into the cold, slippery leaves before momentum threw her forward. She tumbled down a hill in a blur of jabs and scrapes, rolling through dead fall and half-buried rocks. A tree root at the bottom jerked her to a stop, and fire burst through her knee. She clamped her teeth down, but not in time. Had Alex heard? Her heart drummed, blotting out everything else. There was no going on. She was done. Miranda clawed her way to the trunk and found a hollow. She made herself small, struggling to rein in the loud rasps of her breath. She couldn’t outrun him, but maybe she could outsmart him.

      There are a lot of things I could have chosen to describe (the way the forest smelled, the cool air on her face, the time of night, the sound of traffic from the road or forest other night life, etc.), but I focused on details the character, in her panic, would notice and sense. This is what we need to do–think about what the character is feeling at any point and describe things that align with that and what she would notice in this current emotional state. Hope this helps a bit!

  11. jeffo says:

    When I was working on my previous manuscript I did some delving into the language of legs and feet–there’s some very interesting stuff that happens below the waist!

    • We really do use our whole body to communicate, don’t we? I think though, because we are always focused on the other person’s face as they speak in real life, we tend to fall back on that type of description in our stories. It doesn’t translate the same way in writing though, which is why we really need to think beyond the face for emotion. 🙂

  12. Irene says:

    WOW! how apt. Just when I needed it the most. I am working on a character who needs to show her pain and aching longing without speaking. I just finished writing that part. Now I can polish it and make her emotions more intense with these suggestions.

  13. Another post to save and contemplate. Thanks so much!

  14. Martha Ramirez says:

    Body language can tell so much!!! You guys always have the best ways on how to show emotion 🙂

  15. So true, the little nuances of a person’s character add so much to dialogue. I love this, thanks ladies!

  16. Julie Musil says:

    Love this! I wrote an article for a kids magazine about non-verbal communication. It truly is fascinating how much is said without words.

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