Imagine you are creating an everyday conversation of a fairly happy couple lunching at an outdoor cafe. The idea is to make it sound ordinary but still drop in some clues about the problems looming just beyond the horizon. However, you tire of using the ubiquitous “said” after every sentence of dialog.
“How was your day?” she intones.
“The new president has made some unusual requests,” he articulates.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Rossi asked for today,” she utters.
“How would you know?” he rejoins.
This couple already has deep problems beyond bizarre requests from the new president and or Mr. Rossi. They find each other tedious. The unemotional verbs used to replace “said” trend to drip with boredom. So, let’s try to add a little more feeling to the conversation and use words that are stronger.
“How was your day?” she queries.
“The new president has made some unusual requests!” he exclaims.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Rossi asked for today,” she counters.
“How would you know?” he retorts.
Now the couple seems aggressive and combatant. However, that wasn’t really the idea. They are supposed to be a devoted couple, facing the challenges that the world throws at them as a united front. What could you do to add a little more empathy.
“How was your day?” she cajoles.
“The new president has made some unusual requests.” he murmurs.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Rossi asked for today,” she croons.
“How would you know?” he implores.
So the the romantic way of speaking doesn’t exactly fit either. There are many times when those everyday words–said, asked, replied–are the best choice. If it is necessary to capture an undertone of meaning that is not evident in the actual dialog, you can throw in a few adverbs–sympathetically, or adverbial phrases–with concern. You may have heard “Don’t use adverbs with dialog” one time too many. The trick is not to cut them out completely but use them sparingly to get across the mood of the speaker.
Another way of adding emotional impact to conversation is to describe the action of the speaker along with the words. What does sympathy look like in a face? The forehead wrinkles, the eyebrows slope down on the outside, the eyes peer ahead and then look down for a few seconds, and the mouth is shut with pursed lips. Describing a face takes a lot longer than to write “He said with concern.”
You should choose one aspect of a sympathetic face to insert as a cue to emotions in your dialog. “His brow wrinkled,” or “her eyes shifted to the floor and then gazed back at him.” You might still have to tack on “with concern” to both of these instances because many readers do not catch on to descriptions of subtle emotions.
The following are descriptions of the seven universal emotions (according to psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen ):
- Surprise – eyes open wide, eyebrows raised, mouth open slightly
- Anger – eyes pulled down, lips tightened
- Fear – eyebrows raised, mouth stretched open
- Sadness – eyebrows and corner of lips both slanting downward
- Disgust – eyes squinting, nose wrinkled, top lip pulled up
- Contempt – the lips are raised only on one side, also known as the sneer
- Happiness – portrayed by eyes crinkled at the corners, and mouth turned up. If a person smiles using only the lips it appears fake, in essence, the evil smile.
Many readers won’t necessarily be aware of the facial composition of the sinister smile when they read about it. However, they can quickly pinpoint a “fake smile” when they see one. Sometimes you just have to label things what they are rather than going into detail so the reader can visualize faces in conversations. Describing a face takes a lot longer than to write “he said with concern.” Therefore, you have to use this technique just as sparingly as adding adverbs to dialog. Sometimes the best technique is simply to have your characters say what they mean.