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How to Enhance your Dialogue with Emotional Beats
To make dialogue more compelling for your readers and to also enhance your storytelling, you should, when possible, include a beat. Interject your dialogue with descriptions or actions that reveal the emotional state of your characters during an exchange.
These beats need to be appropriate and correspond to your character's level of emotional intelligence. And when included effectively, they make dialogue more emotionally intense and engaging. Here are three techniques to help you accomplish an emotionally engaging dialogue.
One beat to include in your dialogue is facial expressions. A character may raise his brow or tighten his lips during a conversation and thus signal a change in his emotional state. Revealing the look on a character’s face during an exchange gives context to his part of the exchange and shows how certain statements are received.
Biting their lips, narrowing their gaze, flaring their nostril, or happy expressions like a smile and a side-eye are all conventional facial expressions that keep readers aware of a character’s feelings during dialogue. For more facial expressions, watch some good movie or TV show on mute and take notes of every facial expression that signals emotion.
Hand gestures are another emotional beat that makes dialogue intriguing. Here characters can wave their hands, flip a bird, clench their fist, slam a desk, bang a door, cross their arm in front of their chest, wave their pointer. Notice how Michael Chabon uses hand gestures from this passage in his novel Wonder Boys:
“It’s a fake,” said James Leer, holding out his hand to me, palm upward. Upon it lay a tiny silver pistol, a “ladies’ model” with a pearl handle, no bigger than a deck of cards. “Hello, Professor Tripp.”
“Hello, James,” I said. “I didn’t know what you were doing out here.”
“It’s my mother’s,” he said. “She won it in a penny arcade in Baltimore, in one of those machines with the claw. When she was in Catholic school. It used to shoot these little paper caps, but you can’t find the right kind anymore.”
“Why do you carry it around?” I said, reaching for it.
“I don’t know.” His fingers closed around the little gun and he slipped it back into the pocket of his overcoat. “I found it in a drawer at home and I just started carrying it around. For good luck, I guess.”
Your character's movement also signals a change in emotion. In a heated conversation, a character can shoot out of his seat, stomp toward another character or step away from them. These movements signal an increase in tension and emotion. Even in a lighter or romantic conversation, movement can also display a change in emotional levels between characters. Characters might move toward each other or embrace one another.
Consider the account of this tense exchange in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
“Amir agha and I are friends,” Hassan said. He looked flushed.
“Friends?” Assef said, laughing. “You pathetic fool! Someday you’ll wake up from your little fantasy and learn just how good of a friend he is. Now, bas! Enough of this. Give us that kite.”
Hassan stooped and picked up a rock.
Assef flinched. He began to take a step back, stopped. “Last chance, Hazara.”
Hassan’s answer was to cock the arm that held the rock.
“Whatever you wish.” Assef unbuttoned his winter coat, took it off, folded it slowly and deliberately. He placed it against the wall.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen