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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

There are some elements of life which do not translate well to onto the page. Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene.

My theory on them, frustrating as it is, boils down to: some things are better in life or the screen. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply to intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life.

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice, the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

When you write, for example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

…you are taking a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? Because ideally you’d be putting the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word.

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    John Green does an awesome job of using dialogue tag actions to convey both character and tone and looks.

    You’re so right. It’s impossible to cut it all out, but in poignant scenes it would be even better to heighten all that tension with a different kind of emotional expression than tone and glances.

    Lovely post :)

  2. Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod’s avatar

    Just wanted to let you know that your book has been included in the Write Kids’ Books roundup of 15 Kindle books under $10 that will help you write a great children’s book… and 3 to skip. (Don’t worry; yours WASN’T one of the ones to skip!)

  3. HL’s avatar

    This was so helpful–and timely! Very recently, my writing was becoming overburdened with grumbles and glances and glares (oh my!). I couldn’t even really pinpoint what was going on or why I was doing it; all I knew was that my scenes were suddenly flat and boring. I was being lazy! I’d fallen back on shortcuts! Thank you so much!

  4. Kathleen Basi’s avatar

    I have been puzzling over the underwhelming nature of some of these in my manuscripts lately…seeing this post tells me it’s a sign that I need to address it. Dialogue tags helped me a lot, but I do have to force myself to think beyond the obvious. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don’t.

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