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Showing Emotion in Dialogue-Heavy Scenes -- by Angela Ackerman

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 a CC member and Moderator, as well as a co-author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. When she isn't dreaming up cereal monsters or writing about Greek Mythology pychopaths, she blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description hub for writers and teachers.

Posted by Angela Ackerman 2 Sep 2013 at 00:32
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Responses to this blog

Sheridan 4 Sep 2013 at 14:25  
Thanks for the great post, Angela. It makes me want to grab my WIP and take a look at where I can go deeper with the 'showing'.
Ibeth 5 Sep 2013 at 16:45  
Thank you for posting. I have been struggling in this area with my writing. Telling more than Showing my readers the action. Last night I purchased, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer?s Guide to Character Expression. Little did I know that today, I would be reading a blog on the same subject by its author?small writer?s world
Momzilla 6 Sep 2013 at 22:42  
Thanks for giving the book a test drive—I hope it helps you! Emotion is such a difficult area, one that both Becca and I struggled in. Sometimes our brains just need a nudge, so hopefully that's what the lists will do for you.

Sheridan, I know what you mean—whenever I read something that I connect with, I want to start revising too. Glad this post helps!
Intpsych 6 Sep 2013 at 22:54  
Good post Angela. When I try to write the things you describe, it seems contrived, like I have a lifetime of not paying attention when someone talks to me or to someone else.

Momzilla 6 Sep 2013 at 23:52  
I think it is easy to over think it and get too mechanical, but the more we practice, the more natural it becomes. Another thing I find that helps is to grab a book you love from the shelf and flip to a dialogue scene at random. Pay attention to the exchange between characters—an emotion-rich dialogue exchange is best—and see how the author handles "showing" the emotion, and how it comes through to you as a reader.
Ginhav 8 Sep 2013 at 06:36  
Super post. Just what I was looking for.
Riser 9 Sep 2013 at 08:18  
The Emotion Thesaurus is a great guide. Thanks Angela.
Day 19 Sep 2013 at 20:32  
In poker "tells" reveal what cards the player is holding. In conversations with others look for these, and make a mental note for later use. Cops use these no verbal tics to find a lie. You can too!
Momzilla 20 Sep 2013 at 14:24  
Thanks guys! So glad this (and the ET) is helpful!
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