Facial Reactions & Feelings Through Dialogue

Today, I faced a conundrum. I was writing a hefty amount of dialogue in my current chapter. When I write dialogue, I tend to script the conversation first, and then go back through it to ‘illustrate’ it with tags, descriptions, emotional cues, and so on. It’s a good approach that works well for me, but it can be counter-productive.

For instance, whilst I was going back and forth, dissecting the dialogue, chopping and changing and rearranging, I was becoming painfully aware of my limited ability with describing facial expressions. What I mean is expressions like the following, and all the variations thereof.

‘…clenched jaw’, ‘grinding teeth’, ‘…narrowed eyes’, ‘…furrowed/knotted/creased brow’, ‘…nostrils twitching/flaring,’ ‘…cocking an eyebrow’, ‘…puffing cheeks’, ‘…pursing lips.’

I pursued some advice on possible options, resources, solutions and what not, and I was told that I should try conveying emotion indirectly or through dialogue. Now, to me, this seems like exceptionally bad advice, and certainly very limiting. I understand that dialogue can express feelings and emotions, of course, especially through an exchange or conversation. But we’re talking fiction here, creative writing, showing not telling.

Without description, without facial reactions, or interactions with the second person, or the environment, it means nothing. There is no context, no feeling.

Character A: “I hate you.”

Nothing. It’s just a statement. But is it infuriated? Hateful? Ambivalent? Sarcastic? Ironic? Bemused?

Character A: “I hate you.”
Character B: “No, you don’t.”

Yes, these are largely simplified examples, and by no means ‘compelling dialogue’. In the second example there’s more to the picture, but there’s still no context.

Character A: “I hate you,” his eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring.
Character B: “No, you don’t,” her smile froze.

Again, maybe not the meatiest exchange ever, but you begin to see my point, surely? At least, I feel like I’m beginning to make my point, or perhaps I’m just missing the point of ‘try to convey emotion indirectly or through dialogue’. It’s such a restrictive attitude in my mind. I must be missing something, surely?

What if Character A is ‘a man of few words’? What if he never really talks except to say something that needs to be said? Yes, this conveys a measure of import. The act of speaking carries significance just by virtue of the fact that he’s saying anything at all. But again, there’s no feeling. Unless he’s a robot, then whatever he’s saying has to register somewhere on his emotional spectrum.

Then you come to simply using adjectives and adverbs.

Character A: “I hate you,” he said darkly.
Character B: “No, you don’t,” she replied, dejected.

Adverbs themselves are a discussion for another time. (I’m pro, for the record. In moderation.) But the plain and simple adjectives just don’t have that punch. Everything in it’s place, and all that. I understand that all of these techniques need to be used together. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, is another thing to bear in mind. Isn’t that the point? To use all of these techniques. If someone tells me to use physical, facial reactions AFTER these other things have failed, then aren’t they missing the point? Or am I just misinterpreting their meaning?

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2 comments on “Facial Reactions & Feelings Through Dialogue

  1. charcamolson says:

    I have heard the physical stuff referred to as “beats”. Beats break up the dialog and keep the characters operating in a real setting, as well as offering additional options for characterization. Regarding the use of beats, and of expressions attached directly to specific dialog, for showing the tone and subtext of a conversation, I can’t see why anyone would disapprove of that, as long as the beats and expressions aren’t beginning to distract from the ongoing “show”.

    Although style will vary, I tend to go with about 3 parts dialog, 1 part expressions, 1 part beats. Maybe 1 or 2 more parts dialog sometimes. Adverbs are the last option on the table, and everything is, as always, governed by the rule “Use as few words as necessary to convey the story”.

    • KPLanyon says:

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂 You make a number of good points that I tend to agree with. I quite like the idea of thinking of it as ‘3 parts dialogue, 1 part expression, 1 part beats’. That makes some sense to me, and I can see the benefit of a structure that works on those principles.

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