Tag, You’re It


by Kay Springsteen

How do you convey emotion without telling what that emotion is?

If you were a TV or movie director, or producer, would you make a movie that was nothing but a blank screen and a bunch of people talking? Maybe every once in a while a light would come on and show who was speaking so people wouldn’t lose track. Would that help?

How about a book? Would you write a book that was nothing but dialogue with an occasional “said John” or “Jane said,” tossed in?

Your characters have a lot to say. And it’s up to you to sort through it all and help them say it. Now, as the storyteller, the writer has a fair idea of how things are unfolding. The writer hears it as the character is saying it, sees it happening as the character does it. The writer knows what the characters feel, what they think, what plans they may be making. The reader has only the knowledge the writer imparts. So a writer may have a firm grasp of the scene, but the reader starts out with absolutely no clue.And that’s where the writer’s job come in. The writer advances the story through action, thinking, dialogue, and narrative, all wound up into a presentable package that the readers shouldn’t want to put down until they get to the last page.

To set up mood in a scene, there is nothing better than action. Clenching fists, punching a wall, stalking away — great demonstrations of anger. Biting fingernails, lip chewing, fidgeting in the seat, shuffling from one foot to the other — great depictions of nervousness. The author can use dialogue here as well. “Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m not sure I want to.”

In the past, extensive use of dialogue tags and adjectives conveyed the tone to the reader. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded angrily. The most recent trend has been to eliminate all but the most common dialogue tags and to limit the use of adjectives, especially those ending in -ly. In the light of this trend, how can the writer make certain the emotions are communicated? With the tag and the adjective eliminated, we have the simple statement: “Where do you think you’re going?” The words themselves show a possible degree of firmness. If two people are in an argument and this statement is used, there is little doubt the words are said with at least a somewhat angry tone. But to emphasize it, the writer has the option of inserting an action. Actions, when used in passages with dialogue are the punctuation that explains the emotion. “Where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed her arm and jerked her back against him. “Where do you think you’re going?” He slapped his palm on the door and slammed it shut before she got it all the way open.

But what if the tone is not meant to be angry? “Where do you think your’e going?” he asked playfully. Take off the tag and the adjective and add an action and the picture becomes crystal clear. “Where do you think you’re going?” With a chuckle, he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her back into his embrace, tickling her until she burst into helpless laughter.

The actions in your story give the readers a visual to go with the audio they are reading. Combining action in dialogue passages not only keeps the reader immersed in the story but also keeps the story from becoming stagnant and motionless.

As a reader, how do you like to read about the emotions in a scene? As a writer, how do you convey the emotions in a scene?

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3 responses to “Tag, You’re It

  1. Great examples to prove the point, Kay.

  2. Good info to write by Kay.

  3. WOW! Awesome take, Kay, and soo true! Thank you:)

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