MOTION DURING DIALOG

Hi SEers! Denise here to discuss what happens when people talk to each other and how to apply that to writing.

Have you ever watched people talk? Do they sit and speak without moving or any expression? In my family, I’m surrounded by Italians. Hands are always flying around during conversations. I know who not to sit next to during a meal if knives are being used. It’s dangerous!

Besides hands, heads are moving, faces change expression, bodies are constantly in motion, and tone shifts can take the spoken level from high to low. The speaker’s mood comes out in not only their words but their body language.

Yet, when I first write a dialog for a story, I only put the conversation. I barely tag who’s talking. Later, when I’ve completed the story, I go back and add all the movement that accompanies the words.

Have you ever read a book where the author barely engages the speaker’s movements or expression, and the conversation is between two expressionless speakers? It’s confusing to follow along, and my mind wanders.

Open book with talking coming out.

Although, adding in words isn’t as easy as it sounds. I can get stuck on what word to use. Luckily, there are many helpful ways to get just that right word to describe what these speakers are doing. Thesaurus is free to use on Words, but if I need more depth, I will google synonyms of a word that isn’t quite right. If I’m still stumped, I have a book called The Emotions Thesaurus sitting by my desk. You can also people-watch and observe interactions.

Once the words are added in, this can create another problem. I overuse certain words when adding to my dialog. Smile, frown, sigh, and nodded are a few of my constant repeats.

Happy and sad masks

Here are some words to replace the commonly used dialog tag.

  1. Smile

Try beam, grin, smirk, twinkling eyes, or a wink.

“You’ve got a date.” Bette smiled.

OR

“You’ve got a date.” Bette’s bright grin almost required sunglasses.

2. Frown

What about a scowl, glower, grimace, glare, pout, or simply sulk?

Peter’s frown caught April’s attention.”If you don’t want to do it, Peter, just say so!”

OR

Peter’s scowl reminded April of shark week. “If you don’t want to do it, Peter, just say so!”

3. Nod

Here the character can bow, shake, wiggle, move or incline the head, a quick bob of the head, and a shy affirmative dip of the head also works.

Bob nodded.” I’ll do it.”

OR

Bob lowered his head and hunched his shoulders up like he was a turtle withdrawing into his shell. “I’ll do it.”

4. Sigh

The character can exhale, take a deep breath, breathe out forcefully, groan, moan, long-suffering exhale, deep gusty breath, a long spiritless exhale, or a face-plant.

“Whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Lucy sighed.

OR

“Whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Lucy exhaled so loudly it made the cat jump.

What words do you use over and over in your dialog? How do you get your characters moving during conversations?

92 thoughts on “MOTION DURING DIALOG

  1. Pingback: MOTION DURING DIALOG – MAD Production. Company.

    • I’ve heard both over the years, just use said and go descriptive. I prefer the latter when I read. The story would be gone if counting saids took over. Thanks, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jacquie 🙂 It is hard to think of new ways to say things, but you always manage to do it so well. I tend to overuse picking off a lot of lint 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, D. L., for the post on ways one can handle dialogue. Adding action to the dialogue always helps the flow as you’ve brilliantly illustrated above and punctuated correctly. Sometimes, though, authors punctuate action words (smile) as if they are dialogue tags. A common error I’ve observed in published work is that dialogue in quotation marks incorrectly ends with a comma instead of a period when it is followed by action (for example: “You’ve got a date,” Bette smiled.). Other words can substitute for “said” (i.e. complain, whine, exclaim), but an action such as a “smile” does not replace “said.” It is a balancing act to make sure action and dialogue go hand-in-hand to add variety, but mispunctuation in dialogue can make me stumble as a reader.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Linnea 🙂 You make a very good point about punctuation in the dialog, and I’m glad you brought it up. That’s why it is so important to have a good editor to catch those mistakes, but even better if you can avoid them altogether! I’m very lucky to have a grammar expert in my critique group and I’ve learned a lot from her. It can be the little things that make a reader stumble when reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your process. I’m sure you’ve seen some writers mistakenly tag a nonverbal action to dialogue, such as Jim grinned, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” Now that would be one heck of a ventriloquist act.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Denise, great post – some helpful points and reminders here. I overuse certain expressions, too. The editor for my last book pointed out that I center my expressions on lips and mouths, and suggested I “think outside the face.” This really helped me and started me in whole new directions when I have people talking. Thanks for these reminders and great suggestions!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Maura Beth 🙂 It’s so easy to fall into certain words or expressions, isn’t it? Sounds like you have a great editor to point that out to you.

      Like

  5. Your entertaining description of your Italian family around the dinner table reminded me of mine growing up. We all talked over everyone else at high volume. Mom, a German with an Italian spirit, used her hands to emphasize everything. Too much energy in the room. You’ve inspired me to purchase an Emotion Thesaurus, Denise. I tend to overuse certain words, too. Great article! I loved your examples!

    Liked by 3 people

    • There is a lot of energy in the room during meals and conversation that is for sure 🙂 My husband knows one volume for taking—loud…lol. Might be because he was the youngest. I think you’ll really get some good use of the book, Parry. I think we all overuse certain words for sure, but I don’t see it too often in your work. Thank you, Patty!

      Like

  6. Great examples, Denise. On my very first book, my editor said, “Your characters smile too much.” I didn’t know what she meant at first. Body language during dialog is hard to do, but it’s so important to keep the imagery fresh for the reader. Excellent post.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I loved the Italian’s and the knife. That formed quite the picture in my head and made me laugh.

    I too have those crutch words. Smile, laugh, nod, and sigh. I have a list on my computer. I also use the word that a lot. Excellent post, Denise.

    Liked by 3 people

    • We all laugh at the knife reference at our house. Those gatherings are a lot of fun.
      They are easy words to fall back on. Sigh is the hardest for me to come up with another way to express. But when we do make that change it sure adds anothet depth to the story. Thanks, Michele 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. A fantastic post, Denise! I keep my Emotion Thesaurus beside me at all times and refer to it often. It’s such a great way to break away from using the same descriptive words over and over again. I did pick up a book not too long ago and only made it to the third chapter simply because all these characters did was talk constantly and run from one place to another. There was nothing to tie me to them emotionally so I abandoned it. Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Jan 🙂 Yes, fantastic resource to help with our repeat descriptive words. I am guilty of having my characters run from one thing to another. When you think about it, people really don’t run like that. Always on my list of editing fixes. As a reader I’d rather see them tugging at their collar or something to show what they are feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a timely post. I am working on a number of conversations at a table, or around a table in a small conversation pit. I was worried I was going to exhaust all the movement words. Thanks for giving me a few different ways to think about it.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Pingback: Stop by and say hi! Story Empire—MOTION DURING DIALOG #writingcommunity #dialogs #indieauthors #authortips #storyempire – Author D.L. Finn

  11. Love the post. Thank you for sharing these tips. Recently on Twitter there was a debate similar to this – which I can’t imagine why you would want to end every line of dialogue in your book with ‘said’? Makes for a boring story.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Ben 🙂 I have to agree just using said is a bit boring and doesn’t show what the person is doing or feeling. I know some won’t use said at all but I think it had its place but only sometimes.

      Like

  12. What a great post, Denise. Your description of your family chats brought smiles and also made me aware of my family dynamics. I don’t think any of them use their hands when they speak unless it’s to grab a crawling baby or lift a cup for another sip of coffee. Maybe it’s our Irish heritage or our farm upbringing. How fascinating! 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • I come from a German and Irish family and you are right conversations are much more subdued. We are also mainly a farm family other than the older line of doctors. I was drawn into the expressive ways of my husband’s Italian family. There is such wonderful differences to show in how families interact within our writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I just came from a family gathering this weekend that was mostly Italians. Our hands were flying left and right, and everyone was talking over everyone else. It’s how we grew up, LOL.

    I have to watch out for too many grins, smiles, and nods when I’m writing. I’m conscious of those all the time because I know how easy they are to fall back on when working with dialogue. I have a set of crutch words (not all related to dialogue) that spell “danger zone” for me. Most of them I’ve become aware of thanks to the eagle eyes of my critique partners. It’s amazing how easy it is to overlook certain words or actions in our own writing.

    Great post today, Denise!

    Liked by 6 people

    • I can easily picture your family gathering, Mae 🙂 Full of energy and love! It’s so easy to fall back on those crutch words, especially when the story is flowing. I’ve found Critque Partners to be as neccessary for writing as editors.
      Thank you, Mae!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Very interesting. I tend to use the word ‘great’ too often, more so in written correspondence. On a different note, instructing, when attending Army Drill Sergeant school, they emphasized limiting movement of hands and body because it could make the student think more about the movement than the topic. I know, it’s off topic, but it was a great opportunity to offer it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Great is a tough word to get away from for me too. That’s fascinating that it is emphasized to limit movement in Army Drill Sergeant School. The intentional lack of movement in a conversation to me would mean someone is watching, alert, and studying. Thank you for sharing that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, the instructor had deliberate moves and specific questions. When something was shown as part of a list, the one discussed was shown and the preceding or following items were covered. As for movements, the body stayed in one spot so you would avoid the ‘chained elephant’ posture. As for questions, we were taught to be specific, as in ‘what are your questions ON THE MATERIAL AS I HAVE DEMONSTRATED (or explained) IT?” It was quite an interesting school and the instructors were good. No, they didn’t teach us how to yell at recruits, that just came naturally 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I know I tend to use frown, sigh and nod etc too much. I have the Emotion Thesaurus, too. A great resource, but Mine is in ebook format, and my iPad is often elsewhere. I must make an effort to have it by my side when writing.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. I love The Emotion Thesaurus! It’s never far from me when I’m writing. I agree that dialogue without motion or action is bland. Or too many “He said, she saids” gets annoying fast. Like Staci, I have crutch words that seem to change with every writing project. And like her, I’m fortunate to have great critique partners to catch them.

    By the way, I’ve known a few people who probably couldn’t talk if you tied their hands. 🙂 Great post, Denise.

    Liked by 7 people

  17. I can SO relate to the Italians-talking-with-their-hands problem. That made me laugh.

    I have crutch words, too. But I’m lucky to have critique partners who find them for me. The funny thing is, they seem to change per scene. Sometimes my characters sigh too much. Sometimes they smile too much. Sometimes it’s the weirdest thing. But it’s always something. I guess I always have one objective, find an action, then overuse it. Just goes to show you need to carefully revise your own work, then you still need someone else to look it over.

    Great post, Denise.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I had a feeling you’d appreciate the hand-talking example 🙂 It is easy to get stuck on one word especially in a scene where they are having a certain set of emotions. I agree those extra eyes are invaluable to spot when we get stuck in this. Thanks, Staci.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I’m guilty of overusing smiled and laughed. Your examples are terrific, Denise. I’m glad you mentioned the Emotional Thesaurus. It’s a fantastic resource. I have all of the thesaurus books at my fingertips. They are my most used craft books. Great post!

    Liked by 6 people

  19. Good points, especially varying the words used for actions. I would caution against overuse of actions, though, since that can add a frenetic, twitchy quality to a scene. It’s analogous to not including um, er, and you know in dialogue, even though real life conversations are full of those tics.

    Liked by 6 people

    • You bring up a good point, Audrey! I can get too frantic if there is too much action as well as none. It’s a delicate balance. Yes, as much as we use um, well, and er in real conversations it doesn’t work in character conversations. Thanks, Audrey.

      Liked by 4 people

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