If you’ve been writing fiction, you’ve surely heard the phrase Show, don’t tell. But what does that mean, really?
A lot of different things, actually. There are a myriad ways to tell, and I’m working on that post. It will probably be longish. :) But here’s one small variant on the show-don’t-tell spectrum you should take into consideration.
A Twitter follower recently asked me something that gave me pause. He’d just read my post that advises “just use said” for a dialogue tag. Not “he growled” or “she groaned.” Not “she replied” or “he spat.” Not shouted or murmured, not grunted, not whispered. (Not in a house, not with a mouse …)
“This might seem like an elementary question,” he said, “but how else can emotion be conveyed?”
It’s a fair enough question. I think about these things every day, but if you are just starting to practice the craft and want to learn, you need to know the answer.
So here it is: You convey emotion through dialogue, action (also called a beat), and body language, just as you do in real life. And then you step back and give your readers credit for being smart enough to read between the lines. The examples above—we call them said substitutes—are, in the simplest form, telling. Particularly something like he added or objected or retorted. Your dialogue should already make it clear that your character is adding something to the conversation, or objecting to something another character said, or offering a snappy retort. (And resist, please, the urge to write something like: “‘Do you have Prince Albert in a can?’ Joey was just being funny.” We know, we know.)
Now, I’ll admit, I like hissed as a said substitute. It’s very evocative—it can convey urgency or anger or just a loud whisper. (It should be noted, of course, that unless your sentence is loaded with sibilants—“She sells seashells by the seashore”—hiss isn’t an appropriate choice for a tag.) So it’s okay to use a said substitute every once in awhile for extra emphasis. But make it count. And don’t use it more than once.
But really you can make it without them. Look at this lovely example from a romance by Becky Melby, about a guy and a gal getting to know one another:
She sat on the couch and pulled her knees to her chest. “Ryan?”
“I’m a mess.”
His laugh was whisper-soft. “How do you mean that?”
You understand what’s going on here, don’t you? I thought so.
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