Use speech and action to convey emotion

Many new writers—and, frankly—some experienced writers—take a short cut in first draft writing by using labels to convey emotion. Do what you must to get through the first draft, but our editing pass is the time to root those things out and replace them with something meaningful.

Emotional states are shown through speech and action rather than dialogue tags.

This item happens to be under Dialog only because tags are where this often shows up. But emotion labeling can occur in narrative also. Sometimes, you do just need to drop a label in, but more often, it’s best to use the dialog and action to convey the emotion. A first draft might look something like this:

She clicked to the next slide in her deck, which read Insert Text Here. She blushed in embarrassment. “That’s not supposed to be there,” she said sheepishly. “I guess I brought the old version instead of the one I finished last night.”

© Onyshchenko •
© Onyshchenko •

She seems awfully poised for someone who just made a major error in the front of the boardroom. The two biggest flaws here are “blushed in embarrassment” and “she said sheepishly,” both of which are emotional labels. Let’s edit these to ramp things up a bit. The main thing we need to do is get deeper in her POV so we know what she’s thinking and feeling. Then we have to show her reaction.

She clicked to the next slide in her deck. “Now you’ll see…umm…” No. No, no…the slide read Insert Text Here. Her cheeks blazed. This was the old version. “Umm…that’s not supposed to be there. Sorry.” She bent over her laptop. “I guess…” she clicked around, vainly searching for the right version. “Looks like…I think I misplaced the new version.” Her stomach twisted into a knot.

You see the passage got a little longer, but that’s what often happens when we show emotions instead of labeling them. We added two visceral reactions—the heat of her cheeks as she blushes and the stomach twisting. You don’t have to use the label “embarrassment.” Readers will know she’s embarrassed, because they recognize this feeling.

We also brought the reader into the character’s mind by adding her thoughts. Then we tripped up her dialog and added the vain searching to show she’s flustered.

Of course, if she really is the kind of person who takes this sort of thing in stride and rolls with it, you could tone all this down and have her crack a joke. It all depends on the character.

Contradictory interior monologue

Sometimes you can heighten the tension by having the character’s interior monologue contradict what she’s actually saying. So let’s say our presenter is smooth enough to hide her embarrassment.

She clicked to the next slide in her deck. “Now you’ll see in the third quarter—” The slide read Insert Text Here. For the love of…she had the old version. “Well, there’s a solution to death by PowerPoint for you.” The board laughed, and she dug through her files, looking for the right presentation. Idiot. How could she load the wrong version? “Just trying to give you all a little break, there.”

For more information about incorporating emotional cues into your writing, try The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Writers Helping Writers. The book offers a vast range of common emotions and the physical cues associated with each.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This Amazon link is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. […] I addressed the issue of emotional labeling back when we were talking about Dialogue: Use speech and action to convey emotion. […]

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