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Blah, Blah, Blah: How to reveal your characters’ emotions without naming them

When you write a novel, you hope that it will make your future readers feel something. Whether you want them to feel terrified or sentimental or angry, you want to move them. And in order for your readers to feel something, your characters have to feel it first. It is understandable, then, why you’d want to make it very clear what emotions your characters are feeling. But there are effective and ineffective ways to accomplish this. The seemingly most obvious way to get this information across—coming right out and telling us—actually turns out to be one of the less effective methods. If you find yourself explicitly telling readers that your protagonist is scared or joyful or angry, see if you can rewrite using one of these more effective methods.

Use a more specific verb: If you’re explaining how a character feels by adding an adverb to your dialogue tag, see if you can find a more specific verb that would allow you to eliminate the adverb. For example, if you’ve written:

“You’re driving me crazy,” she said angrily.

Consider instead:

“You’re driving me crazy,” she screamed.

If you scream at someone, they tend to pick up on the fact that you’re not happy with them, and readers will understand that too. But don’t get too crazy here. The main job of dialogue tags is to let us know who’s speaking, and if done correctly, they blend into the background. If you get too creative with dialogue tags, they can call too much attention to themselves and make your novel feel amateurish. So “screamed” is okay, but think twice about “caterwauled” or “screeched.”

Or better yet, give the character angry words, words that make it obvious what she feels. If there is still some room for misinterpretation, pair those words with an action that will clarify it. For example, you could have your character throw a plate against the wall after they speak. (More on using action below.)

Use action: We’ve all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Well, that applies to characters in a book as much as it does to people in real life. Imagine a scene where one character asks another, “Don’t you even care what I think?”

Sure, you could have the second character respond, “Not particularly,” and we’d all cringe a bit. But imagine if, instead of responding, your second character reacts this way:

“Don’t you even care what I think?”

He glared at me for just a second and then walked out.

In this example, he’s not even willing to stick around and continue the argument—that’s how much he cares. I doubt anyone would have a hard time figuring out his message here.

Sometimes even a conspicuous lack of action can speak volumes. Picture a scene where a romantically involved couple is discussing their future:

He looked her right in the eye and said, “I want you to move in with me. Okay, so we fight occasionally. Who doesn’t? I think this is right. I love you.”

Emily didn’t reply.

“Don’t you have anything to say?”

Emily could have said, “Well, I don’t think I love you.” Or she could have looked away and nervously twisted her hands to express her discomfort with letting him down. But to have her just look at him and say nothing? That has to invoke a special kind of pain. She doesn’t even love him enough to feel bad about not loving him enough! That should feel like a punch in the gut to your readers even though Emily does absolutely nothing.

Use description: This one is a little less obvious. Description sounds like telling, not showing, and we all know how writers are supposed to feel about that! But you can tell us a lot about a character’s state of mind, about how they are feeling, by giving us a peek into how they see the things around them. For instance, let’s imagine two characters, both driving down the road as the sun sets in front of them. How would these two characters describe the scene?

Character one: The sky turned purple and orange ahead of her and made her wish she was a painter instead of a writer. The way the light lit up the clouds reminded her of the halcyon days of her youth and that romantic summer at the beach with Josh. She laughed. Summer romance. How cliché can you get? And speaking of clichés. Had she really just thought “halcyon days of my youth”? Only English majors, something she hadn’t been in quite some time, used phrases like that. But cliché or not, ten years later, she and Josh were still together. And he loved it when she used words like “halcyon.”

Character two: The sky turned purple and orange in front of her and she felt that familiar fear in her stomach. The darkness was beginning to creep in, turning the shrubs along the road into shadows. Soon the colors would bleed from the sky and she’d be left with shades of black and gray. Another night to wonder why she always felt anxious after dark.

In the first scene, the character sees the colors in the sky as inspirational and they call up happy memories. She is focused on the beauty of the scene and thinks fondly about other nights like this. In the second scene, the same sunset triggers a very different reaction. Character two doesn’t appreciate the beautiful colors because they are just a harbinger of the darkness to come. She sees the shadows, the blackness that will soon take over, instead of what is ahead of her. She thinks anxiously about other nights like this. By showing us the scene through the characters’ eyes and describing how they interpret what they see, we learn a lot about their emotions.

A great book elicits strong emotions in its readers. Refrain from taking the easy route and telling readers how your characters feel. Using one of these methods will allow readers to place themselves in your characters’ shoes, where they can feel the emotion rather than read about it.

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