In this session I’d like to address ‘showing’ your characters’ emotions in dialog scenes rather than ‘telling’ the reader in what way the words are being said. Oftentimes I see writers relying on those dreaded and lame ‘ly’ adverbs dangling at the end of dialog tags, a lazy way of qualifying the ‘said’ or ‘asked’ verbs. Let’s take a look at just such a passage-
Mary sat in the breakfast nook bench across from John. “Why didn’t you bother to let me know that in the first place,” she asked pointedly.
“Because I knew you’d never believe me anyway,” he said angrily.
“So you don’t trust my ability to handle much of anything, huh?” she whined.
John said abruptly, “No, I don’t.”
“Fine,” she cried, “just fine. Be that way.” She walked quickly away, pausing at the door to turn around and hastily say, “I’m leaving for mother’s house. Bye, John.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he said flippantly.
Now we have been ‘told’ how John and Mary are feeling and in what kind of tone and emotion they are talking to each other. But there is no movement, very little visualization to the scene. To this writing coach, it is just plain lazy writing. Reliance on qualifying adverbs is a shortcut that results in flat, lifeless scenes. Let’s now examine the same scene being shown to the reader, with little or no need for embellished tags-
Mary sat in the breakfast nook bench across from John. Her eyebrows furrowed and her eyes locked on his, she leaned in, tapped a forefinger twice on the tabletop and said, “Why didn’t you bother to let me know that in the first place?”
A wince shot across John’s face. His pupils narrowed. He bit his lower lip as his face glowed crimson and he clenched his fists. “Because I knew you’d never believe me anyway.”
Mary looked down and away, pouting. “So you don’t trust my ability to handle much of anything, huh?”
John rapped his whitened knuckles on the table. “No, I don’t.”
She sniffed and whimpered. “Fine. Just fine. Be that way.” She shot out of the bench and trotted away, pausing at the door to turn around. Her parting words were fired like bullets. “I’m leaving for mother’s house. Bye, John.”
John tolled his eyes and shook his head, flapping his lips with a sigh of mock sincerity. “Yeah, whatever.”
See how much it opens the scene up? There is seldom any need to add anything other than ‘he said’, ‘she said’ to a dialog tag and, indeed, quite often there is no need for any tag if your writing is done in such a way as to reveal the moods and emotions of your characters through their motions and expressions.
Marvin D Wilson, multi-published author and editor with All Things That Matter Press, using the pen name “Professor Old Silly,” posts writing tutorials on his blog each Tuesday. The above tutorial is a re-post from the archives of his blog at: http://theoldsilly.com.