Monday, April 28, 2014

Emotion beats in your dialogue

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Dialogue is pretty much my favorite thing about writing stories. Right up there with character development. And the brainstorming process. And writing the first chapter. And pretty much everything else about writing books.

We've talked on here about minimizing your dialogue tagssaid, asked, repliedand using action beats instead to both clue the reader in on who is speaking and what is taking place while they speak.

So instead of:

"How do you not know this?" Palmer asks.

We can show our audience more by cutting the tag and showing action instead:

Palmer looks at them like they're stupid. "How do you not know this?"

What we haven't talked about yet on Go Teen Writers is using a beat to show the emotion or sound of the dialogue. Sometimes this technique is called "dialogue cues," but I think of them as emotion beats. Like you're showing the audience not just what's happening, but the emotion of the scene as well.

The easiest way to do this would be with adverbs:

"What do you mean?" he asked warily.
"I mean you're grounded," she said forcefully.

But adverbs are high on the no-no list of editors, so you need to find another way. I pulled three books off my shelf from different genres and with drastically different author voices so you can see how this plays out in a variety of stories:

"If you're gonna wallow in it, I'm going in." Alex could be reading passing stats for all the feeling in his voice. "I simply wanted to make sure you weren't making plans to climb to the top of the hotel and dive off."

This is an excellent dialogue directive because it not only tells us how he's speaking, but it's a true word picture to Alex's character as an ex-jock. I love that.

Here's another one of Jenny's that shows deep emotion:

"You knew I assumed you were proposing that night two years ago. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together." The old hurt lodged in her throat and made her words hoarse. "I can't do this right now, Matt."

Really great stuff. See how much better an emotion beat is there? The dialogue would lose something, in my opinion, if instead Jenny had chosen to tell us that the character is teary or that she's reaching for a Kleenex. This is great.

Here's one more that's similar to the previous example with Alex, only it's about fifty pages later.

"Just to review, we pretend to date for approximately one month. This time in June, I will propose to you somewhere public and slightly humiliating to us both." His voice was as expressionless as if discussing his preference in athletic socks. "In five monthsa month before our wedding dateyou and I will have a very amicable, very quiet separation. We will realize we both want different things and go our separate ways..."

Jenny's books are always popping with voice, and she carries that all the way through her emotion beats.

Now let's look at an example from historical fiction:

Julie has a lovely historical voice, as you'll notice in both the dialogue and beats:

"But we have had it wrong, Mary." Mrs. Mimpurse drew near and spoke in hushed tones. "Miss Powell is marrying one of the Marlows to be sure. But not Roderick as we supposed. She is marrying Sir Henry himself."

I like this one a lot too. The dialogue is so clear to the reader's ears:

"Down, I say." She heard a man holler in false bravado. "Down!"

And since so many of your write fantasy, I pulled To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson off my shelf as well:

"That is disgusting." Sparrow's voice cracked. "I hate this place. I hate it!"

Jill could have chosen so many action beats for dialogue like that, but I love how she chose emotion instead. Another Sparrow example:

"Your friends on Ice Island." Sparrow's raspy voice always sounded like he had a cold.

And I like in this last example how Jill combined action and emotion for the beat:

Achan met Sir Gavin's brown eyes and forced his voice to remain even, though his stomach clenched. "Of course."

Now it's your turn! Pull out your manuscript and either find a place where you've already marked the dialogue with an emotion beat, or switch out an action beat for an emotion instead. I'd love to see your examples below!


  1. Mijn stem was niet meer dan een fluisteren toen ik probeerde uit te leggen wat deze tekening voor mij zo bijzonder maakte. ‘Maar weet je, Delfi, deze ketting heeft Ostrica met liefde getekend.

    But since almost no one here knows Dutch, I'll translate it in English ;-)

    My voice wasn't more than a whisper when I tried to explain what made this drawing so special for me. 'But you know, Delfi, Ostrica has drawn this necklace with love.'

    What about that?

    1. I like it! (Especially the version I can read :)) I would consider cutting "when I tried to explain what made this drawing so special for me" and instead show that in the dialogue.

  2. Nice post, Steph! Jenny B. Jones is so good at those. Thanks for including my examples too. :-)

  3. What about something like this?

    “That,” Venus said, stabbing the floorboards with a pitchfork, “was one of the many reasons I learned how to fight.”

    It still has "said" in it, but I think it's a better way of conveying her anger and resentment than writing something like "she said angrily."

    1. Is there a reason you don't want to cut said? It could accomplish the same purpose if you edited it to: Venus stabbed the floorboards with a pitchfork.

      This is a great action beat!

  4. How true. Looking over my manuscript with this in mind, I've noticed several places where I could exchange dialogue for emotion. Thanks!

    Even Coren seemed to wilt underneath that cold gaze, and his words stumbled. “I would hope you would say no if she was wrong and explain more if she was right.”
    “You think I would?” Errance’s smile was like a knife unsheathing, and the room darkened as a cloud passed over the sun. “Tellie is an impulsive child, quick to trust. If I am the Prince of Aselvia, if her story is true, and that I have spent my last seventy years amongst demons whose sole purpose was to break me to their will—you think I would tell you?”

    A little bit of emotion and action.

    1. I adore the phrase about the smile being like a knife unsheathing. Gorgeous.

  5. This is great! Very helpful as I strive to stay *far* away from dialogue tags as possible. ;)

  6. Wow, this was very helpful, Mrs. Morrill! Thank you. I've already seen places in my novel where I could do emotion and action instead of dialogue. :) Thanks again!

    The rocking chair groaned as I got up and hurried to the little sitting room. “Lucy,” I said. “Lucy, I need you up right away.”
    Lucy jerked to a sitting position and stared at me, wide-eyed. “Has she –“
    “No, nothing’s happened,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I am terrible with illness, Lucy, but I know and believe in a Great Physician Who heals our souls as well as our bodies.”
    Lucy stared at me as though I were half-mad.
    “Just come,” I said. “I need you to pray with me.”
    “Pray with you?” Lucy echoed. “Frances Kennard, you mean those goodnight prayers we said as children? No? Oh, Francie, I’m scared to pray to God.”

    And . . .

    The words came to mind; I could hear them yet, spoken so earnestly that night in Mr. Harrison’s deep, gentle voice. I laid my hand on Lucy’s slight shoulder. “’Seek, and ye shall find,’ Lucy Howard, ‘knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.’”

    What do you think?

    1. Very good! Lots of strong emotion coming through. Nice work, Patience.

      You use "said" three times in that first example. I would suggest getting rid of at least two of them, but I bet you could scrap all three with a bit of effort!

    2. Thank you!

      Yes, totally see what you mean. I'll definitely try and scrap all three of them. :) Thank you again, Mrs. Morrill!

  7. I don't have any examples to share at the moment, but I love this post! So helpful.

    On the subject of dialogue- and adverb-tagging, I've been reading the Harry Potter series for the first time (YAY FOR THAT!)! I love them, but as a book-critic-for-pleasure, I notice that Rowling uses a lot of dialogue and adverb tags. I don't mind them much, but after reading this post, I think I'll start to mind them more. . . . She also tends to lose her showing-not-telling in her most intense scenes. But her writing is still somehow marvelous . . . in The Goblet of Fire when Harry was about to face the first task, my stomach felt just as nervous as his did :)

    walking in the air.

    1. Hannah, you're so right. Twilight and Hunger Games also have plenty of moments of telling and tagging. They've sold rather well :)

  8. How's this scene on the first page of my story?
    “I'm sorry, sis.” Titus ran a hand over his sandy hair. “But why are you always home so late? Do you loiter on the way to school? What keeps you? Are you hassling Miss Bennet that she has to keep you back? Mama was near hysteria.”
    “Sorry,” Bethany muttered and began running down the lane. Her eyes were so blurred by tears she could not see half the way and almost sprawled when tripping over a large stone.

    1. You have some good emotions going on here. Couple suggestions that are unrelated to emotion beats. One is that Titus could probably do something more interesting than run his hand in his hair. (That action beat is inevitable in most books, but since he's angry/exasperated, we could find something else. Might be a great moment to use an emotion beat instead.)

      The other is that the last sentence is rather long. Especially for a sentence of action. I would break it into two.

  9. Wow. I've searched what I have of my manuscript and I really have NO emotion tags, except for one with an adverb. (Oops.) They're all action tags that I suppose show emotion by what they're doing, although I don't know if that counts. This is a really cool post, Stephanie. Thanks!

    1. Action beats can certainly express emotion and how a line is delivered. Like:

      Anastasia narrowed her eyes. "Really?"

      That's a lot different than:

      Anastasia clapped her hands together. "Really?"

      But it's good to mix it up with emotion beats when editing.

  10. Hi!
    Great post, I loved it! Thanks for posting this ;) I now have a question: Is there such a thing as too much?
    Is mine too much? Thanks!
    “Is that right.” I flinch against his bare hand, worn and stained. The hand that enticed me when we first met. The hand that acted loving. Now, two years later, the real Danny has been out and hungry. He continues on like a vulture. Even his voice is changing, low and nightmarish. I shiver, clasping my hands together. They are white against my navy dress. “But there is air here. What difference is there between this air and the outside?” Again the knife tip, this time to the small of my back. A nip. “Are you sure you weren't trying to escape? I know you're not foolish Charlotte. I know you remember whose world this is. It's a man's world.” His lips caress my cheek. “So the law is on my side, not yours.” He offers a low chuckle. His boots clump on the hard wood floor as he moves back to plop into a recliner, messed up hair contradicting his crisp shirt and jeans. “Well?”

    Aaaannnnndddd that's creepy :D Sorry!

    1. No one knows the answer to my question? Is my piece that bad? :(

    2. Parker, this is great. I don't think it's too much at all, but yes there CAN be too much. I like how you describe the voice :)

    3. Thanks! :) I was so worried I was going overboard. Thank you M. Morrill!

  11. I need to work on using more action and emotion beats, but I was able to find one emotion beat:
    “Jeremy. Jeremy Smith.” His voice was shaky. “What about you?”

    1. Mine didn't have many either! Something to work on in edits.

      If it were me, I would remove "was" since it's a passive voice. I would say "His voice shook."

    2. Thanks for the help! Passive voice is one of my biggest problems.

  12. Great post! I really need to work on this in my writing and to remove all of the boring says, replies, and asks lurking in the pages of my novels! However, I was able to find three examples of action/emotion beats in my story. (Still unsure if the first one counts or not).

    I flash a defiant look at him, and grind the words, “Yes, sir,” out from between my teeth.

    “Well, well, well, you can fight back, can’t you?” Finley’s voice is a mix of pleasure and irritation. For a moment, the drill sergeant is gone, and we're equals.

    “Congratulations, Snow. You passed your first test.” His voice is low and soft, but there’s something about it that makes me nervous, almost scared.

    ~ Kayla

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it! :) It's from a novel I finished writing about a month ago, titled Snow.

    2. No problem :). It looks like a very good book. Maybe you could give me a summary of the book? :)

    3. Sure! Here's my summary: In a small Arctic town in the future, sixteen-year-old Snow is kidnapped by Finley, a man working for the government, who wants her for her ability to create and control snow and ice.

    4. That sounds like an enthralling book! Is it finished?

    5. Thank you! The rough draft is finished. I'm planning to start editing it this week. It needs a lot of editing. :)

    6. Nice work! I particularly love this one: I flash a defiant look at him, and grind the words, “Yes, sir,” out from between my teeth.

      Though, I think I might move the word "out" and maybe tweak it to "and grind out, 'Yes, sir'"

    7. Well, I'd like to hear about it when it's done :)

    8. Ms. Morrill, thank you for the feedback! I'll be sure and change it to "and grind out, 'Yes, sir'"

    9. Ms. Johns, I'm planning on sharing some of it on my blog in the near future when I finally edit enough of it.

  13. What about this...
    I threw back my head and laughed. "Do you really think that I dislike you that much? Haven't you guessed that this is all just a silly little game that I've been playing with you?"
    I looked down at the little pathetic figure of the girl I secretly loved.
    "Yes. All that you've ever shown to me is irritation and anger. What else was I to think?" She whispered unhappily.
    I picked her up from the heap of hay she was sat on and looked into her scared eyes.
    "I love you with all of my heart, and anything that I might've done to you to make you think this...I didn't know how to react to my love. I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?"
    She just nodded, overwhelmed by my change.


    1. That was really good! :) My only critique would be your MC's last line. What if he showed her that he loved her (a kiss maybe) rather than just tell her straight up, and then apologized.It doesn't flow as well compared to the rest. Otherwise that was really good, something I would continue reading!

    2. Thank you so much! I will change the MC's second line. Thank you so much!

    3. I would also use her name more instead of she/her so much. Plus there's a POV issue there in that last line, since he can't know for sure what she's feeling or why she's feeling it. Here's an article on POV that might help:

    4. Thank you! I will change those things and look into that. Thanks!

  14. I'm not sure if this is quite right, but here goes!
    “Not the queen. The princess royal.” The man’s voice dipped, and I got the feeling that he didn’t want to be overheard.

  15. Great post!

    I like that, Katie. I'm not sure if my emotion beats are right, either. I read this and couldn't think of a shining example in my W.I.P, so I wrote a scene with two in it. As follows:

    “Meredith, open the door.” Like Meredith didn’t know what knocking meant. She obliged. "Meredith, do you have any idea how long you’ve been up here? You were supposed to be in the armory two and a half hours ago!”

    “I was working on Ismere’s wedding dress,” Meredith’s voice wavered, going up and down, up and down, like her needle as she continued to stitch. She just had to finish that seam; it would feel incomplete for her to leave the dress sitting there bunched up on the floor, pieces unconnected.

    “You’ve been doing far too much of that of late, and far too little fencing.”

    “I was working on Ismere’s wedding dress,” Meredith repeated.

    “With war imminent, your fencing conditioning must take priority. I do not wish you to be defenseless.” But Meredith already was defenseless, defenseless against her mother’s words, against the Look.

    “I was working on Ismere’s wedding dress,” was all she could seem to say.

    “Yes, but the honing of your fencing technique would be better use of your time.” There was an edgy note in her mother’s tone, slightly off-pitch. Meredith gulped. Time for a new phrase.

    1. Aiiieee, I need to use more pronouns! In the past, I had a significant problem with starting every sentence with 'She', and I think ever since my stories have been overburdened with antecedents.

      The emotion beats I was hoping to have there were "Meredith's voice wavered, going up and down, up and down, like her needle as she continued to stitch.", and "There was an edgy note in her mother's tone, slightly off-pitch." Am I trying too hard with the similes and metaphors? Am I overthinking this? (Definitely know the answer to that last one.)

    2. Very nice! I liked the simile a lot. And I liked that last emotion beat with her mother's dialogue as well. Great work!

  16. Claude’s expression crumples like a piece of paper. "I thought we were going to patch it back together."

    *shrug* Meh, I'm still working on it. Lol. ;P

  17. Here's one!

    “What happens if Marcella marries Big Eagle?” Kaela bit her lip to keep ulterior motives out of her voice.
    Father's head jerked up like a car had just lurched forward. His mouth curved into something of a smirk. “Marcella? To an Indian?” He threw his head back and laughed. She relaxed a bit, but her mission was important.

    It's the first sentences of my story. Tell me what you think.

  18. The Russian PianistApril 30, 2014 at 8:08 PM

    Would these qualify as emotion beats, or are they action beats?

    "Don't move!" The words snapped off my tongue like a train without brakes clacking too fast down the rails.

    Later..."Cassie, can you stay with me?" His voice quivered a little, unsteady to the touch. (Is it weird to combine two senses in one sentence?)

    Another one: Gulping the burn down, I wiped my hands on my skirt and knelt beside the hospital bed. "Of course. I'll be here all night. I wouldn't leave you for anything." Now that I've failed to protect you. The thought pinched my chest. Something hitched the breath halfway up my esophagus, hooking it to the back of my ribcage--or maybe my heart.

    Thank you so much for this post; it's extremely helpful (I think adverbs are allowed in commentary?!)

    -The Russian Pianist

    1. Love the last example :)

    2. This is good to think about--I've never really noticed you can have emotion beats as well. So they're kind of like actions, just they specifically show emotion?

  19. This is an edited dialogue from my rough draft. I was having a hard time finding any emotion beats at all, besides the ones that had "-ly" adverbs in them. So I edited this passage, which was filled with "said" and adverbs. Anything else that sounds like it needs changing?

    What do you have here, little boy?” The man stalked closer, a blackened and crooked grin on his face and his rusty dagger held loosely in his hand. Tyv knew instantly – this man wasn’t one of the poor people like himself who simply found himself upon hard times. This was a man who enjoyed violence, and making others miserable.
    “Go away,” Tyv hated that his voice trembled slightly.
    The man laughed while another man, this time with light hair and waxy skin yet dark beady eyes, joined him.
    “Hear that Trint?” The first man grinned wider. “He wants us to ‘go away.’”
    “Leave me alone. I’m warning you!” Tyv’s voice shook as he tried to back up further, but his back hit the wall.
    “Ooh, you’re warning me, are you?” The first man leaned in close, his sour breath brushing onto Tyv’s face in a warm cloud. “Well, then, I suppose I’ll just have to leave.” A grin spread slowly across the man’s face, revealing rotten and crooked teeth.
    The other man – Trint, had the first man said? – laughed.
    “That fruit looks mighty good. Tell me, little boy, how you got them,” The first man, still leaning close, didn’t back away, but his eyes were now focused on the oranges cradled in Tyv’s arms.
    “None of your business,” Tyv clutched the oranges closer to his chest and tried to twist himself a little farther away from the older thief.
    The man sent the oranges rolling on the streets with one swipe of his arm, and then another sneer twisted his already horridly scarred face. “I’ve made it my business. Show some respect to your elders.”