In a recent post (About the Feels) I rambled a bit about the importance of giving characters authentic emotions and offered my perspective on the lifelong task of embracing feelings in the name of research. The trick of writing emotions boiled down to two points: truly know yourself, and deeply analyze others.
Exploring those concepts took the whole post. I didn’t address the nuts & bolts of portraying emotions in prose at all. Someone asked if I might consider it, and so I did. Let’s revisit the topic of giving characters real personalities, but let’s take the North Face approach up the Hilary Steps to the summit this time. How does one write emotions? It’s also a two prong approach again. This time, I’m pairing description and dialogue. The usual disclaimers apply: this isn’t advice. It works for me. Your mileage may not only vary, it may even be measured in furlongs or fathoms. Anyway. First let’s look at conveying different emotions in a line of dialogue using the simple tools of tags and pacing.
Here’s the line I’m going to use. “Look, I don’t know what to say.” Depending on how it’s presented this line could communicate anger, exasperation, impatience, frustration, disappointment, resignation or some other combination of emotions I haven’t considered. A lot of context will be provided by the words around the line itself, but that’s the core. Let’s break down presentation of the core dialogue first.
“Look,” she said heavily. “I don’t know what to say.”
The visual break creates a dialogue pause, and that conveys hesitation, exasperation, resignation. This example commits Using An Adverb Sin, but that’s style, and I have two whole blog rants about Style Rules already. If you want to avoid the adverb, convey the same idea with a physical tag:
“Look.” She raised her hands, dropped them again. “I don’t know what to say.”
Contrast that with anger or frustrated impatience: words rattled off fast and hard, without time for consideration.
“Look, I don’t know what to say,” she snarled.
The one problem with this tag is that it’s a Saidism. I’m a traditionalist proponent of saidism avoidance. I treat them like dialogue ghost peppers, best saved for specific dishes, not thrown willy-nilly into the breakfast cereal or the mashed potatoes. Again, physical tags will accomplish the same task:
She grabbed handfuls of her hair and tugged hard. “Look, I don’t know what to say.” or Her face flushed red, and the veins on her forehead stood out. “Look, I don’t know what to say.”
Here’s my take on disappointment.
“I don’t know what to say.”
No tags, no descriptions. Just flat, unadorned words. Tag it with some action, and you have nuance. Punches a wall? Angry. Hangs her head? Ashamed, or hiding frustration. Paces back and forth? Impatient, frustrated exasperated. All from one single sentence. You want to wring the most out of dejection and hesitation? Add a pair of em-dashes. “Look, I–” She closed her eyes, sighing. “–don’t know what to say.”
Once you put dialogue into a web of narrative, the opportunities to convey emotion explode into infinity. In the following explanations, please not that I’m a descriptive minimalist. This can be a weakness or a strength, depending on a reader’s preferences and expectations, and also on whether I strike a proper balance. My first writing attempts looked more like screenplays than stories. People talked in limbo. I knew where they were, what they looked like, what had prompted the conversation, but I regularly failed to elaborate on them. Learning to learn to dole out context in digestible chunks is a process that requires give and take between writer and reader.
Books on acting can be excellent resources for learning to describe emotion. Look for ones that show emotions on faces, the way to hold one’s body, how to move. The trick is to know those visuals and make them pop. The reader will do the feeling. Some people like head-to-toe cataloging. I like pulling one or two sensory highlights instead. That’s style again. Everyone finds their own balance.
I’ll offer two examples of emotions mainly presented in dialogue. Don’t expect deathless brilliance. I’m making these up on the spot.
First, one that springs off the sentence I’ve already used:
Greta’s breath hitched in her throat when Bailey refused to meet her eyes. “What’s wrong? Where’s Falco? What happened?”
Bailey kicked at the curb. Her brow wrinkled, and her hands worked at her suit buttons. “I don’t–” She stopped and started again. “Look, I don’t know what to say.”
Greta took Bailey’s hand. “I won’t hate you, no matter what. I promise. Spit it out.”
Bailey’s shoulders slumped. “I lost him, Greta. I’m so sorry. I tried everything, but he’s dead.”
One last one. Just for fun.
“You bitch.” Bailey slapped Greta so hard the sound echoed in the small room. “Keep your filthy hands to yourself.”
Great retaliated by grabbing Bailey’s wrist and spinning her around into a half-nelson. “Make me,” she said through gritted teeth. Bailey squealed in pain as her face hit the wall.
“Ow! Falco, stop her!”
“Oh, no. She’s stronger than me.” Falco shoved his hands in his pockets and rose up and down on his toes, smiling to himself. “Besides, you started it.”
Greta looked over her shoulder and scowled at him. “You’re enjoying this.”
He lifted both hands and bit his tongue to keep the smirk contained. “No, I’m not, of course not.”
Of course he was enjoying it, when he wasn’t worrying about them getting hurt. Being the prize was a little awkward, but what could he do? Either woman could break him in half.
Greta snorted and resumed pulling on Bailey’s braided hair. “You stay away from him, do you hear me? He isn’t your boyfriend any more. He’s mine.”
“Hey!” Indignation made Falco’s voice squeak. “You don’t own me.”
There you are. That’s how I weave emotional cues into dialogue. I hope it’s helpful in some way.