Characterization, dialogue, Romance, Uncategorized

Dialogue: Show and Tell

The other day I was thinking about how different a scene can be depending on how the dialogue is written. Not just the lines themselves, but the tags, the action, the tone and gestures. So I asked my author- sister, Annette Larsen, to play with some scenes from her books to demonstrate. She’s taken a couple scenes from her books and changed them up to show the difference between neutral or nonexistent tags, telling, and showing. I think they are a fantastic demonstration of the huge difference some good showing can make.

Example 1: Raina and West (From Painting Rain)

1: Dialogue with neutral tags.

“Who do you cry for?” he asked.

“You know how selfish I am. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself,” I responded.

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should,” I said.

“Are you ever angry with him?” he asked.

“More often than I ought.”

“Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you,” he said.

“I carry plenty of the blame,” I replied.

“More than you should. Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?”

“Because—” I said.  “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?” he asked.

“It helps to know how I see myself.”

Notice how, emotionally, this scene went way too fast and felt pretty flat. It almost doesn’t make any sense, and as readers we might find ourselves confused, disinterested, or annoyed.
2: Dialogue with “telling” descriptions instead of showing.

He wiped my tears away. “Who do you cry for?”

“You know how selfish I am,” I said in a whisper. “So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself.”

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should,” I insisted, feeling guilty.

He studied my face. “Are you ever angry with him?”

I knew who he referred to and it caused more tears to come to my eyes. “More often than I ought.”

His jaw clenched in anger, then he nodded.  “Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you.”

“I carry plenty of the blame.”

“More than you should.”

I wanted to disagree, but his insistence made me emotional and I couldn’t talk.

“Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?” he inquired.

I shrugged. “Because—” Suddenly I knew the answer— “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?”

I looked at the canvas, the way I had painted myself to look desperate and alone. “It helps to know how I see myself.”

I have read far too many books that actually sound a lot like this. It barely scratches the surface of what’s going on emotionally. Maybe the writer knows what’s going on, but if they don’t show us, we can’t feel fully involved and invested.
3: Dialogue with “showing” description (in other words, done right.)

He reached up, brushing his thumb over the tear there. “Who do you cry for?”

“You know how selfish I am.” My voice came as a bare whisper. “So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself.”

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should.” I didn’t know why I said it. Perhaps I was hoping to scare him away and regain my solitude. Perhaps I hoped that he would condemn me in the same way I condemned myself.

His eyes dove into mine, searching for something. Finally he spoke, his question bold. “Are you ever angry with him?”

I didn’t have to ask to whom he referred. Several more tears streaked down my face. “More often than I ought.”

He clenched his jaw, but nodded his head. “Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you.”

“I carry plenty of the blame.”

“More than you should.”

I wanted to argue with him, but his insistence made a different sort of emotion well up to clog my throat.

“Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?”

I shook my head, lifting my shoulders. “Because—” The answer hit me with sudden clarity— “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?”

I stared past him, at the way my hand grasped for the light while a branch snagged my skirt, holding me back. “It helps to know how I see myself.”

This is the scene as it’s written in the book. The subtle additions make a huge difference: his thumb on her cheek, her voice a bare whisper, his clenched jaw, plus her reactions, internalization of emotions and thought process all lead us through the scene and help us experience it as readers.

 

Example 2: Lylin and Rhys (From Missing Lily)

1: Dialogue with neutral tags.

“You were dishonest,” he said.

“Yes, I was,” I replied. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before,” he said.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I stated.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

“I have not given you permission to use my name,” I said.

“But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I shouted.

“Yes, I do know,” he replied.

The dialogue in this one is strong enough that it doesn’t suffer quite as much as the first example did from the missing descriptions. But as it’s written, it’s just an argument, and the only emotion that really comes through is anger or annoyance.
2: Dialogue with “telling” descriptions instead of showing.

He looked at me with disapproval. “You were dishonest.”

“Yes, I was,” I said defiantly. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before,” he said meanly.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I whispered, hurt.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

His words surprised me. “I have not given you permission to use my name.”

He took an intimidating step forward. “But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I interrupted, embarrassed by the reminder.

He let out a defeated sigh. “Yes, I do know.”

I actually think this one is worse than the first one. The inane tags and descriptions actually detract from the scene rather than adding to it (I think she threw “meanly” in there for a laugh). It feels like someone very…young wrote this scene.
3: Dialogue and description done right.

The disapproving glint was back in his eye. “You were dishonest.”

“Yes, I was.” I threw my hands up. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before.” He spoke quietly, his words slicing into me.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I stated in a vicious whisper.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

My eyebrows shot up. “I have not given you permission to use my name.”

He moved almost imperceptibly closer. “But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I shouted to make him stop, stumbling back a step.

He sighed, the fight gone out of him. “Yes, I do know.” He took a step back.

Notice in this one that she has used almost no adjectives or adverbs to describe the characters or their lines, but we feel a whole lot more emotion than we did in the first two. Now, I’m not one of those people who say you should never use adverbs, but if you can imagine those minute, often subtle details and then show it using specific descriptors–as she has here, with characters throwing their hands up, speaking quietly, whispering viciously, and stumbling back a step, it will feel so much more genuine and emotive.

Annette K. Larsen has been writing clean romance for over ten years and is the author of the Books of Dalthia series, all of which can be found on Amazon. 

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