One of the best places to reveal your character’s emotions is during dialogue. Author Peter Gelfan joins us with some great considerations on how to make these exchanges more powerful, drawing readers in. Read on!
Although we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, emotions provide deeper and more persistent motivation to our lives. Reason may steer us, but emotions drives us. The same goes for the characters we write, and they often most vividly reveal and project their emotion though dialogue. Dialogue remains one of the most complex skills we have to learn and keep learning, and writers face a series of choices in depicting emotion in dialogue.
Monologue vs. Scene
Dialogue almost never consists of disembodied words, so conveying it isn’t only a matter of deciding what words the character will utter. As well, people in the throes of emotion often have difficulty putting together coherent sentences. So writing dialogue involves creating an entire scene, which entails a number of decisions. This can include, in rough descending order of importance: what the character says (or doesn’t say, which can be just as eloquent), what the character does (or doesn’t do), what the character thinks (or not), what other characters say, do, or think (or don’t), and tonal elements such as setting.
Having a character expound her innermost feelings at length in poetic cadences may make for a riveting performance on stage, but in a novel, where realism rather than spectacle generally holds sway, it’s likely to come off as contrived and expository rather than genuine and heartfelt. Instead, work out what effect you want the scene to create and then choose the actions and spoken words that will best put it across for that character and situation.
Expectation vs. Surprise
A character receives some news—perhaps a lover has died. You have a great range of possible responses, and the least effective choices are the expected ones: “Oh, no!” and she bursts into tears. Or you can give readers a surprise—one that in hindsight they will realize they should have seen coming—and something to think about, such as a new side to this character. Perhaps she stiffens for a few seconds, then slowly collapses into a chair with a long exhale and a blank expression. After a pause, she says, “This isn’t all my fault.” Or, “Who was he with?” Emotional scenes are gold for a writer. Think twice before squandering them on default emotional responses and clichéd ways of expressing them.
Hearts on Sleeves vs. Ambiguity
So far, we’ve been talking about conveying emotion. But there’s another dimension to consider. How unequivocally do we want readers to understand a character’s emotional state? It’s not always in a story’s best interest to let readers know clearly how someone feels. In some cases, it’s vital that readers do not know, such as when the copiously grieving widow is the poisoner. Even when reader ignorance isn’t vital, as it is in a whodunit, it’s always more interesting for readers to wonder about something, which spurs thinking and imagination, than to know something, which lets the mind go back to idling. As well, in essence, depth of character boils down to the impression there’s more to learn about this person, which can include how they feel. Ignorance, including emotional ignorance, is what pulls readers through any novel.
Emotion and Subtext
In any given scene, a writer has several layers of understanding to manipulate. This can also be seen as levels of subtext. At the full-knowledge end of the scale, the character in question knows exactly how he feels, as do the other characters and readers. That may be fine for a happy ending, or a fast blast of disaster. But it doesn’t give readers much to chew on in terms of character interaction and undercurrents.
Dialing down from full knowledge, perhaps the central character has his friends fooled, but readers know how he really feels. Or vice versa: the other characters seem to know how he feels, but readers don’t. Further down toward ignorance, the main character knows how she really feels even if she effectively hides it from others, including readers. You can even have a main character who is so confused she can’t sort out her emotional state. And of course we’ve all had mixed emotions about an event, with some of them embarrassing or shameful. At the bottom end of the scale is complete ignorance, where even the writer hasn’t quite yet decided how the character feels about something.
Writers sometimes have the mistaken idea that their job is to convey information to readers. That may be true in nonfiction, but creating an engaging reader experience in fiction has more to do with playing on reader ignorance and curiosity. So before you try to communicate as much emotion as you can as often as you can, have a look over your choices and find the best emotional tool for a character and a scene. Sometimes hiding it, hinting it, faking it, exaggerating it, downplaying it, or reversing it will make your story even better. Then, once you’ve created your subtext, don’t spoil it by explaining it with interior monologue, dialogue, or exposition. Trust your readers to get it. Write for smart people, and your writing will be smarter.
Drama vs. Exposition
One last suggestion about making the most of emotion in dialogue: unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, build the emotion into the dialogue and the scene rather than stepping in as author to try to explain what the character is feeling. You want readers right there with the characters trying to fathom what’s going on with them. You want readers listening to the characters, not to you. You may know what the character is feeling, but instead of telling readers, write the character and the scene to allow the reader to figure it out. The purest essence of the novelist’s art is to communicate through human interaction, not exposition.
Peter Gelfan was born in New York City, grew up in New Haven and the New York City suburbs, and attended Haverford College until he turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.
He has traveled widely and lived in Spain, England, Florida, and Vermont. Found Objects, his debut novel, was published in 2013; his latest novel, Monkey Temple, was published in 2019. He co-wrote the screenplay for Cargo, les Hommes Perdus, which was produced and released in France in 2010. He lives with his wife, Rita McMahon, in New York City, where he continues to write, work as a freelance book editor, and tutor writing in a public high school as part of PEN’s Writers in the Schools program. You can find him on the web here.