Show, not tell. The advice is the bane of every writer’s existence. Of course, we want to show you our story and not tell it. But how? For me this is especially difficult with dialogue. Dialogue tags are my personal nemesis, and my novels are dialogue-driven. Eek! He said, she said sounds horrible (not to mention boring!) to me. On the other hand, writing ‘he grunted with annoyance’ or some such drivel doesn’t sound great either. So, what’s the solution?
I’ve combined the ‘show, not tell’ with the ‘don’t overuse dialogue tags’ advice to come up with a strategy. Instead of indicating who is speaking and the manner in which they speak (grunting, whispering, etc.), I now try to show what the speaker or listener is feeling. Please note: Like all good advice, this shouldn’t be overused. Otherwise, your dialogue will be difficult to find between all the information about how the characters are feeling. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.
Relief. Relief is a difficult emotion to write as humans surely don’t sigh as much as I write ‘sighed’ in my novels. Must. Stop. That. Here’s an example of how I managed to rid myself of yet another character sighing.
First draft: “Oh, it’s you Melanie,” Betty sighed in relief. “You nearly scared me to death.
Edited draft: “Oh, it’s you Melanie.” Betty placed a hand over her heart before collapsing in her chair. “You nearly scared me to death.”
Anger. My characters (especially those alpha men who are always protecting their girlfriends who think they can solve crimes) tend to growl in anger a lot. Now, I’m all for a bit of growling. It’s hot! But it can be too much when the male protagonist is constantly growling (I don’t write paranormal, after all!).
First draft. “That’s messed up,” growled Pru.
Yikes! Even my female characters are growling all over the place.
Edited draft. Pru’s jaw clenched. “That’s messed up.”
Annoyed. Annoyance is another difficult one. My characters are always snorting. I absolutely refuse to get rid of the snort, but I am trying to lessen the frequency with which I use it. Here are some ideas of how to show annoyance instead of saying something like He said in an annoyed voice.
• Narrowing eyes
• Crossing arms
• Tapping a foot
• Rigid posture
• Throwing hands up
• Rubbing the brow as if to ward off a headache
• Running a hand through the hair
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“What are you doing here?” Mel crossed her arms over her chest and huffed.
The above is merely an example of a few emotions. I try to employ this strategy with most emotions to avoid the dreaded he said, she said while not going overboard with dialogue tags.
P.S. The writers helping writers blog has some awesome blogs with examples for a variety of emotions. Check it out!
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