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I often find myself with two (or more) characters speaking, and too often my descriptions would be "he paused," "he sighed," "he rubbed the bridge of his nose," etc.

Too often I find myself in a situation where my instinct is to make every character sigh with every line (says something about myself, doesn't it?) and it's hard for me to find other things for them to "do". This has probably been asked, but I wouldn't know what to search. These aren't dialogue tags or anything I have a term for.

"Silence filled the room" is one I always overuse, too. I'm afraid it gets very old, very quickly.

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  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Sep 12 at 11:49
  • Are your characters calm, quiet and likely melancholic?
    – Alexander
    Sep 13 at 16:50
  • Most are none of those, really
    – Riq
    Sep 14 at 6:58
  • @Riq then try to watch a dialogue scene in movie with good actors who are emotional. Notice what they do. It's not like they never pause, sigh or rub their noses - but those are definitely not the first things that you would mention if you try to describe their actions.
    – Alexander
    Sep 14 at 16:27
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Paint a Picture With All Senses:

You want to convey the emotions of your story with all senses. It is less the words of your characters that convey the emotion, but more the reaction of your characters to those emotions that causes them to emote. Point of view is also important, as describing the feelings of your character peripheral to their main emotional state can work as well. But describe the physicality of the emotions. How does it make them behave? How does it make their body react? What secondary feelings do they experience that indirectly convey the central thing they feel? What secondary thoughts come to mind that emphasize the feeling they are having, while not actually STATING their emotion (dependent on POV)? A few examples:

  • A character in love (amore) has their heart pounding. They look away when the other pays too much attention, as if it's too intense. They listen to everything the other says and pay REAL attention. They stare at the other when no one is looking, and make excuses to be with them, talk about them, and even smell them (awkward, gross-sounding but true). The slightest praise lights them up, and the smallest critique is crushing or stops them from (wearing that dress/shirt, using that scent, eating, etc.).
  • Anxiety leaves them paralyzed to act. The chest constricts, and they hyperventilate. They are quick to anger or panic, and can be deeply defensive to keep other from seeing how anxious they are - all while broadcasting their anxiety for all to see with fears and babbling. Their eyes might dart about looking for the source of their anxiety They listen for criticism OR ignore good advice depending on if it fulfills their perception for the situation.
  • Emotional breakdown is GREAT fun to write. The person sobs, choking uncontrollably, their eyes run or they cry. They can barely speak, and snot pours out of their noses. They shake and have trouble standing. A high-pitched keening noise issues from them. After they compose themselves, these symptoms can recur at a moment's notice.

I will shamelessly google the physical details of things I want to describe. So if, for example, I want to discuss rage, I'll search and get:

And these are when hardly trying. Then pepper these factoids into the writing to give the whole situation a realistic feel. Doing this research may even help to inspire WHY a character is angry in a situation where they are acting out angrily, and these details can enrich the plot of the story.

You can also convey the emotions of the characters by how the conversation flows. A character's reactions might become increasingly unreasonable as emotion builds. Panic might mean they stop using full sentences and barely respond at all. Love might mean they refuse to let a conversation end despite there being a clear end.

Responses can also be a fingerprint for a given character. One always rubs the sides of their head as they get frustrated. Another digs their nails into the side of their hands to keep themselves from saying something bad (until that one great conversation when they finally blow up and lose it). A third starts tapping their feet whenever they can't figure out how to respond.

Here is a quick google on the subject:

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A few pointers that might be helpful :)

1) 0-0-1-0-0 (No Action)

I personally find this quite helpful, since I have a habit of overusing tags as well. Usually during dialogue between two characters (won't work for 1 or more than 2 maybe) people tend to talk a lot more than, well doing gestures, movements etc. So it's a lot better to send emotional cues through dialogue or subtext than tags. For example, a small talk between a married couple could go something like:

Misha held his face in cupped hands, a lazy grin pushing his mole up. "Did you see the news today?"

"What news?"

"Oh come on-"

"I'm not hearing any of that blabbering anymore-"

"It's not that bad. You just- it's your new found prejudice."

"My what?" Maya looked back at him, the sopa of her wet dish washed under the running tap. She chuckled, "Do you even know what that word means?"

The idea is to follow the 0-0-1-0-0 pattern. 0 for no tag and 1 for a long and active tag. That one active tag must compensate for the rest of the empty tags. Like, notag-notag-tag-notag-notag.

2) Description block (No Action)

This is a nice one for slow, tension-free, laid back times. The idea is to choose this one character, have them talk, and then just add a nice description block which actually shows how they feel or their reaction. If you need to show the reactions of the other character as well, then you can show it as a reaction of the former character. You could show it from the thoughts of the former character. How the former character feels about the latter's reaction, what the latter's reaction reminds him of, or to what the reaction looks similar. For example:

"I thought you had finished that course of yours." Chris held the paper close to his chest. He wriggled his toes inside his shoes.

"Stephen. I really want to continue this."

"For what? A shiny little badge?"

"It's not just a badge. And im not doing it for that. It just feels so nice in the hills. The picnic. The-the bonfire.The songs-"

"You can do all of that after finishing school."

"But Stephen-"

Stephen scoffed. That same scoff that his mother gave him everytime he asked her to help him in studies or play with him. All Chris could do was hang his head and continue to please his cousin. Stephen's arms suddenly wrapped around him in a cold embrace, that maniacal grin staring back at Chris in the mirror.

3) Active action (without pronouns)

Have a dialogue, and then you can add short physical gestures and cues. You can get creative here and make up your own ones. Here's an eerpf from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Where are you going?” demanded Gatsby in immediate alarm. “I’ll be back.” “I’ve got to speak to you about something before you go.” He followed me wildly into the kitchen, closed the door, and whispered: “Oh, God!” in a miserable way. “What’s the matter?” “This is a terrible mistake,” he said, shaking his head from side to side, “a terrible, terrible mistake.” “You’re just embarrassed, that’s all,” and luckily I added: “Daisy’s embarrassed too.”

“She’s embarrassed?” he repeated incredulously. “Just as much as you are.” “Don’t talk so loud.” “You’re acting like a little boy,” I broke out impatiently. “Not only that, but you’re rude. Daisy’s sitting in there all alone.”

Hope this helped

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You’re human. Just use your real life experience to situations as a reference. In other words, use punctuation to highlight emotion. Punctuation may just be a conglomerate of symbols, but they exist to highlight a phenomenon we as humans undergo in real life.

“Hey!” Is different from “hey…”, is it not? So this is one tip: use punctuation to your advantage.

Next tip, use their speech patterns to indicate emotion! For example, “he said to… he said to me that… o… he said to me that I don’t care anymore!” As opposed to, “he said to me that I don’t care anymore.” See, use speech patterns to highlight emotion. Nevertheless, in either of these two examples you can see the emotions indicated by the speaker are contrasted by the patterns of speech. Use this to your advantage with respect to what emotion you want to show and use your tools of speech from living life and reading to highlight the reality of your characters.

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