In my last post, I spoke about showing versus telling.
You can do that through dialogue, as well. Good dialogue serves to show, versus tell.
On the other hand, if too many of your characters’ emotions are being described through narrative, or through tags appended at the end of the dialogue, then you probably need to rewrite your dialogue.
Words such as she grimaced, she laughed, he bellowed, he growled—in place of he/she said—are the mark of an amateur. Just as unnecessary and clumsy in dialogue tags are the –ly adverbs: angrily, grimly, harshly, etc. Again, your dialogue should be showing these emotions.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, urges writers to Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.).
This sentence, for example, is telling (or explaining): “I find that difficult to accept,” she said in astonishment.
While, with just a tweak, you can have showing: She dropped the whisk, splattering meringue up the cupboard door. “You can’t be serious.” (Both examples are from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.)
Notice how in the second sentence, the language also changes in the quote. “I find that difficult to accept” is a bit too formal, not how most people talk. “You can’t be serious” is what most of us would say. You can also show a person’s character through the words they say.
Any fan of NCIS will tell you that what makes part of Ziva David (a butt-kicking ex-Mossad agent) endearing is her use of language. As someone whose first language is not English, she doesn’t use contractions and she mangles common phrases: “I see she went for the elf cut,” she says of someone now sporting a pixie hairstyle. In her case, the phrasing she uses goes a long way toward showing the viewer who she is.
One technique you can use as a writer are descriptive beats—as long as you don’t go overboard. Beats break up dialogue, and usually show what a character is doing or thinking. This is from A Cold and Lonely Place, by Sara J. Henry:
She buried her face in her mug, and it was a moment before she spoke again. “Troy, I want these articles to show Tobin’s life, good, bad, whatever. I want them to show who he was and what he could have been.”
The character is struggling with what to say, and how to say it. Rather than just saying “she paused before speaking again,” Henry shows us the pause.
So remember, resist the urge to explain. Let your characters and their dialogue do all the work.