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  • Writer's pictureStuart Wakefield

Crafting Character Dialogue: Show, Don't Tell

Letting your characters' words reveal their traits and emotions, instead of explaining them in the narrative, is an art - and one that many writers overlook.


"Show, don't tell" is a fundamental principle in writing, especially when it comes to dialogue. It means allowing the reader to deduce character traits and emotions from what the characters say and do, rather than directly informing them through narrative exposition. This approach draws readers deeper into the story, making them active participants in understanding and connecting with the characters.


Why "Showing" is More Effective


  • Engagement: Showing encourages readers to engage more actively with the text, piecing together clues to understand the characters.

  • Realism: It mirrors how we perceive people in real life – through their actions and words, not through explicit descriptions.

  • Subtlety and Depth: Showing adds layers of subtlety and depth to characters, making them more complex and relatable.


General Examples of Telling vs. Showing


Telling:


  • John was angry.

  • Lisa is a kind-hearted person.

  • They were nervous about the meeting.

In these examples, emotions and traits are stated directly, leaving little to the imagination.


Showing:


  • John slammed his fist on the table, his face reddening.

  • Lisa spent her weekends volunteering at the animal shelter, always with a warm smile for everyone she met.

  • They fidgeted constantly, avoiding eye contact and repeatedly checking the clock as the meeting time approached.


Here, the descriptions allow readers to infer the emotions and traits. John's actions suggest anger, Lisa's activities imply kindness, and the behaviours of the people in the meeting indicate nervousness.


Demonstrating the Difference


Consider a scene where a character, Emma, is feeling guilty:


Telling:


  • Emma felt guilty about lying to her friend.


Showing:


  • Emma avoided her friend's gaze, her voice a mere whisper. "I... I had to work late," she stammered, the lie leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.

In the "showing" example, Emma's behaviour and internal sensations hint at her guilt, making the scene more vivid and engaging.


"Show, don't tell" isn't about eliminating all narrative descriptions, but about choosing when and how to use them for maximum impact. By showing characters' emotions and traits through their dialogue and actions, you create a richer and more immersive experience for your readers. As you practice this technique, observe how it changes the way your characters come to life on the page.

Now that we understand showing, not telling, let's look at it in action when it comes to dialogue.


Showing vs. Telling When Crafting Character Dialogue


In dialogue, "show, don't tell" is about letting the characters' words and how they say them reveal their personality, emotions, and motivations, instead of directly stating these elements. Here are some examples to illustrate the difference:


Examples of Telling in Dialogue


  • "I'm really angry right now," said John.

  • "I care a lot about animals," Lisa mentioned casually.

  • "I'm feeling very nervous about this meeting," Alex admitted.

In these examples, the characters are directly stating their feelings or traits. This approach can sometimes feel flat or less engaging because it leaves little for the reader to infer or engage with.


Examples of Showing in Dialogue


  • "Every word you say just makes me... just makes me..." John clenched his fists, struggling to keep his voice steady.

  • "Did you see the new shelter they're building? I've already signed up to help on weekends," Lisa said, her eyes lighting up.

  • Alex's voice was barely above a whisper. "What if they ask me something I don't know? I just can't mess this up."

In these "showing" examples, the way characters express themselves, their body language, and the context of their speech provide clues about their emotions and traits. John’s physical reaction and interrupted speech suggest anger, Lisa’s enthusiastic tone and topic choice imply her love for animals, and Alex’s timid speech and self-doubt hint at nervousness.


Why Showing is More Effective in Dialogue


Depth of Character: Showing allows for a deeper exploration of character nuances, making them more layered and interesting.


  • Engagement: It invites readers to read between the lines, engaging them more actively in the story.

  • Realism: People often express emotions indirectly in real life, so showing makes characters more realistic and relatable.

  • Emotional Impact: Showing can create a stronger emotional impact, as readers feel they are discovering the characters' emotions themselves.


Final Thoughts


In dialogue, showing rather than telling makes the interaction more dynamic and interesting. It's about using the characters' words, their pauses, their intonations, and their actions while speaking to reveal deeper aspects of their personality and feelings. As a writer, your goal is to craft dialogue that feels authentic and lets your characters' true selves shine through their words.


If you're interested in bringing a character's backstory into their dialogue, I’d like to introduce "Emotional Echoes: The Art of Character Backstory." By taking the course, you'll develop richer character development, practical techniques, expert guidance, deeper storytelling, immediate application, and lifetime access!


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