Writing for Story: Using Dialogue to Show Character Emotions

antique story book

At one time, nonfiction had a reputation of being a boring, “just-the-facts-ma’am” type of writing. Then Truman Capote came on the scene with his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, forever changing the way readers (and writers) looked at nonfiction. Using elements of fiction in your blog can enhance the reader’s experience and make the blog post more memorable. Starting with Characters, during the next few Thursday is Words Day segments, we’ll discuss the elements of fiction and how to include them in our blog posts.

Even real people are “characters.” (A few minutes spent browsing pictures posted on The People of Walmart proves that point.) When writing about characters, whether you’re speaking from your own experience or sharing about friends or family members, think how novelists bring their characters to life. One of the best tools in the character development toolbox is dialogue.

Using Dialogue to Show Character Emotion

For someone who started talking at the age of 15 months and hasn’t stopped yet, I’ve had a lot of difficultly creating speech on the page. In fact, while revising one Work in Progress, I found one page with ELEVEN euphemisms for the word “said.” My characters interjected, deduced, screamed, hissed, muttered, and spat words at each other. The big problem here is that using a word such as hissed “tells” the reader what’s going on instead of “showing” the character in action.

Why do we need to show rather than tell? With the advent of the movie screen, today’s readers are prone to “watching” novels as they read. This puts a great responsibility on writers, but it can be accomplished. When we show our readers what the characters are doing, it pulls them into the story. Telling pulls the reader out of the fictive dream. Telling sucks the emotion from the scene.

So, how do we deal with such dialogue disasters? First, think of the emotion the character is conveying. Is she angry? Sad? Frustrated? Terrified? What do you do when you’re angry? Yes, you might “spit” or “hiss” words, but what body language shows your anger? And how can you bump up the emotions in your dialogue scenes?

In his book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maas suggests that we look for ways to have a character do something they would never do or say something they wouldn’t normally say. Having characters do or say something “over the top” adds oomph to our scenes. It can add oomph to our dialogue, too.

One scene that displays intense emotion is Vivian Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara spotting a lone radish in a field (from “Gone with the Wind”). The depiction of a prim and proper southern belle scraping in the dirt is definitely one of those “this character would never do that” moments. What emotions are involved in that scene?

  • Anger at the Yankees who ruined her home
  • Desperation derived from physical hunger
  • But, most of all — Determination that she will not stand by and let circumstances control her destiny.

In the movie, a talented actress “shows” us Scarlett’s emotions. So, how can we write such an emotional passage? Her determination shines through in her eyes when she says, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” The words are powerful, calling the Lord Almighty as a witness, but her actions emphasize them and paint an indelible image in our minds. So, we writers must resort to “showing” those emotions through the character’s active sequences.

Examples of how to “show” emotions through writing: Desperation is displayed in the “Gone with the Wind” scene by Scarlett rushing to the spot where she spots the stem, digging in the earth, and thrusting the unwashed radish into her mouth. Anger and frustration can be shown through clenched jaws or pounding fists, and, often for women, a tear will escape and trickle down when overwhelmed with anger. Voices quiver. Hands shake.

During your story-development process, watch for ways to insert emotion into your dialogue passages through body language. Incorporate the senses to pull the reader into the setting. Put in an occasional “out of character” phrase or action. (Note — too much of this technique will make the story seem comic, yet one or two will make the piece memorable.)

The next time you’re writing a blog post that includes a story about a person, take a page from the fiction-writer’s story book and show your readers the character’s emotions. If you’ve had success with this in previous blog posts, please share with us some of the techniques you used to “show” your blog readers some character emotions.

Click here to read more posts in the Writing for Story series.

Until next time,

Happy Blogging!

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1 comment so far ↓

#1 Farnoosh on 01.14.10 at 11:23 am

No kidding! Story telling is today the most powerful way of getting the point across to an audience. It is what the executive coaches teach those VPs and Directors and what speech coaches tell the top dollar speakers and what they teach in advanced speaking classes. Bravo on making a very good point. Can’t agree more. And of course it works in blogging too :)!

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