Dialling Up Your Dialogue

This post was created by Allan Douglas.  If you’d like to read more about his hints and tips for writers, you can visit his blog too!

For a long time, I’ve been trying to explain to young writers that real people don’t just stand around ‘saying’ stuff.  Most people do language, rather than just speaking it.  Allan’s blog post summed up my thoughts beautifully, so I decided to re-post him (with his permission, of course 🙂

Now, onto dialogue:

A good way to draw your reader deeply into your story is to use a variety of non-verbal cues in your dialogue.  Try the following techniques to dial up your dialogue.

Facial Expressions

When a character raises an eyebrow or furrows his brow, this action gives the reader an additional clue beyond dialogue that indicates a change in the character’s emotional state. As the scene progresses and the emotional intensity rises; the character’s dissatisfaction grows into anger, for instance, the character might clamp his jaw, his nostrils may flare, or eyes narrow to a squint, his face may redden and so on. These are all commonly understood signs of anger.

To learn effective use of these cues, read classic works containing emotional encounters or watch good dramatic films with the sound turned off.  Study the facial expressions of the actors and take notes of how they signal emotion.

Talking With Their Hands

Characters can point or jab to intimidate, steeple their fingers during thoughtful reflection, clench their hands into fists or pound a table in anger.  Crossing their arms in front of their chests indicates resistance, throwing up their hands in resignation or despair (this gesture is often overused) or holding their hands up to surrender.  Rubbing the temple or forehead with their fingers often accompanies stressful thoughts, and pounding a thigh self-recrimination.

Use Movement

One character may cross the room, gaze out a window or push back from a table to get physical and emotional distance from a heated conversation or intimate moment with another character. Moving in closer they can become more threatening or intimate, or drive a point home by occupying the others entire scope of attention.

If a character puts a piece of furniture or some other object between himself and another character, that’s a clear cue that he’s blocking the other character; emotionally, physically or intellectually. Use movement to support and enhance your dialogue, and the scene will be rendered more clearly in your readers mind.

Displays of Emotion

Depending on your character’s personality don’t be afraid to have him take big actions—throw a fit, throw an object, or throw a punch. If your character has a hair-trigger temper, bypass eyebrow raising and go straight to breaking the furniture.  If more reserved, use the cues to indicate a slow build-up of anger, passion, fear, hopelessness or joy.

The actions you choose must be consistent with your character’s traits. Every cue action should reflect the character’s personality and emotions, and clarify the scene. Even if your character rarely shows emotion, using small details to show his true feelings leaking out: a tightening around his eyes, a tight grip on a pen, deliberate or forceful steps as he walks around a room.

Show Don’t Tell

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs to tell your reader what the character is feeling, describe the character himself.  For example; instead of “He turned angrily on her.”, try “He turned on her, anger flashing in his eyes.”  Instead of “The amorous man reached for her.”, try “With passion swelling within him, he reached for her.”

Physical cues like these make it easier for your reader to see and feel your character’s emotion, even when their words belie that emotion.  Craft your characters’ words with care—and back up the emotions with physical cues to telegraph their true feelings to your reader.


~ by bloowillbooks on November 19, 2011.

2 Responses to “Dialling Up Your Dialogue”

  1. I often struggle with this part of my writing. Dialogue is the most difficult part of writing for me, so thank you for the advice. 🙂

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