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When writing face-to-face dialogue, I like to give clues as to what the non-POV character is thinking and feeling through their actions. Not all the time, but whenever it feels appropriate. They might be pacing or go completely still. Maybe they're scratching their chin, sipping at a drink, or tugging at a frayed thread.

It's much harder to employ "Show, don't tell" in a phone call. In this particular scene, the character on the other end of the line is reacting to the POV character's news with varying emotions, ranging from cautious and upset to relieved and hopeful. Due to his personality, he's unlikely to voice any of that out loud.

So far I've been using the following techniques:

  • raised/lowered voice
  • audible sigh/gasp/chuckle
  • rushed/chopped speech
  • pauses/trailing off

But I'd still like to convey more information, so I've resorted to the POV character commenting (in her head) on what she thinks he (or his voice) sounds like (nervous, hostile, accusatory, hopeful), but that's much closer to telling than I'd like.

How can I show a character's thoughts and emotions if the POV character only hears them?

The story is written entirely in first-person from a single character's viewpoint, but though the secondary character (the one being called) appears less often on page, he's extremely important for the plot.

The main character has previously interacted with the secondary character, but she doesn't know him well. However, I can sort of assume that my audience remembers him from other stories, so hopefully they'll be able to work out what's going through his head as he's receiving the news. (That said, I would prefer not to rely on that too hard, as I myself sometimes read series out of order, and would assume others do the same.)

EDIT: As pointed out in the comments, changing it to a video call is an option. However, I would prefer not to do that because it would greatly reduce the tension of the scene, and I also don't think the main character would trust the other character enough. Still... it's an option I hadn't considered.

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    What POV is this? Third-person omniscient is very different to first-person limited for this reason. – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica Jun 7 at 20:38
  • @ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizza First person limited. I've added it to the question. Thanks! – Llewellyn Jun 7 at 20:45
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    And when is it set - modern times it could be a video call. – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica Jun 7 at 20:50
  • @ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizza Good point. Technically, a video call would be an option, though one I'd like to avoid. – Llewellyn Jun 7 at 21:08
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    Dropping the phone is also an option – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica Jun 8 at 8:03
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You've already solved part of the problem by having the first-person limited POV character tell us what they hear, think, and feel about the second character.

You can also use the following techniques to show your audience a whole lot more about both characters than the POV character is telling them:

  • Psychological insight: As an author, you can rely on your audience's knowledge of people and life to understand things the POV character is not aware of. For example, when we read Catcher in the Rye, we don't take Holden Caulfield's commentaries about Stradlater and Sally Hayes at face value; we read between the lines because we know he's a runaway prep schooler with issues. We empathize with him AND see beyond his limited perspective.
  • Multiple perspectives: You can write preceding chapters from various POVs to give your audience information and insights that neither the POV character nor the secondary character possesses.

I hope this helps.

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What I ended up doing was to add detail to the characters' earlier meeting to establish the secondary character's personality and mannerisms, not only for the reader but also the main (POV) character. This allowed me to let up a bit in the phone call (the initial number of sighs was ridiculous) and let the dialogue do the heavy lifting. But it also meant that I could now explicitly reference the earlier scene. For example, I can now indirectly show the secondary character's agitation because the main character pictures him pacing, presumably due to his tone.

I also made pauses in the phone call more explicit (e.g. by having the main character check if the other character's still on the line). I think that's something that occurs more naturally in face-to-face dialogue (every physical action or description adds a tiny pause), but making that clearer helps convey the non-POV character's uncertainty.

And finally, I moved one critical piece of information into a later scene (which I had planned anyway) where they meet in person again, which allows for a better description of his reaction.

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You also have the reaction scene from the POV to process that phone call to make their hidden feelings clear. You can use body language of the POV you're following but yes pitch and what they're hands are or aren't doing is also another.

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