Gestures and Dialogue – A Perfect Show Don’t Tell Team.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash


Hi SEers. John with you again. I hope you had a great weekend and am rearing to go this Monday morning. Grab a cup of coffee and join me in a discussion about character gestures. (I know not the most exciting thing for a Monday morning.)

Most of you don’t know that my books contain an unusually high amount of dialogue. For some reason, I love to write dialogue and write it without tags. Why a lot of dialogue, and what’s up with no tags? The quantity of dialogue comes from my training on “show don’t tell.” I know dialogue works as a show vehicle. Writing dialogue without tags is my method of keeping the reader in the story. I believe that tags can pull a reader out of the story, especially if they require the mind to do any thinking about the tag.

Here is an example of a tag that requires the mind to think about it.

“I hate you,” Larry shouted as he slammed the basement door.

The statement “I hate you” should stand on its own. What the heck does the basement door have to do with the words? See, the mind must figure that out, and as a result, reader progress slows down.

Slamming the door does show that Larry is mad. Still, the mind must figure all that out before the eyes proceed in the story. What does this have to do with gestures? A lot. One more thing, and I’ll explain why. Pure dialogue does not convey any emotion. Pure dialogue is only words on a page that communicate what is said. It does not give the reader any hint into how the speaker says the words. Let’s use a tag with the example above to show what I mean.

“I hate you,” Larry shouted. Yes, we have volume but no feeling.

Now to my point. I believe gestures allow the reader to understand the word’s intent instantly. For our example, let’s do this. I’ll throw in a gesture just before the words of dialogue. This will hopefully do two things. First, it will identify who said what. Second, it will SHOW emotion. Here we go.

Larry clenched his fist in front of his face and shook it at Leroy. “I hate you.”

Larry could have made several gestures to broadcast his feeling at that moment. He could have bared his teeth, tightened his eyelids, flared his nostrils, or even bitten his hand. But, yeah, that last one is old Europe.

In my next post, I will give you a list of gestures and what they can mean in terms of communicating the character’s moods. These gestures are pretty standard and employed by experts to read the nonverbal communications of our fellow humans. In the meantime, here is a snippet from my current WIP to give more than the one example above. No need for an intro since the dialog will speak for itself.

“Thank you for coming, my child.”

“Yes, Sir. I don’t often ignore the summons of the Archangel.”

The Archangel wrinkles his brow. “You’re funny, Samantha; I do appreciate your humor.

Sam frowns. “Is there something wrong, sir?”

The Archangel opens his hand. “Why should there be something wrong with me wanting to talk to you.”

Sam looks at the floor. “You are so busy, my grace, that to take time for idle conversation seems like a waste of resources.”

“Of course, I should be the judge of that.” The Archangel puffs out his cheeks

Sam looks up. “I meant no disrespect, sir.”

The Archangel smiles. “And none perceived my child.” He clears his throat and looks away. “There is a small problem.”

“Yes, sir?” Sam’s mouth starts a slight upturn at the corners. She catches herself before a smile appears. She thinks this is not the time to broadcast being right about trouble.

The Archangel touches his temple. “I’ll come right to the point.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Sam locks onto the Archangel’s eyes.

“We are missing a soul and his guide.”

“Sam’s hand goes to her mouth. “Missing? How is that possible?”

The Archangel raises his hand. “Before we get to that, please have a seat, and let me give you the preliminary details.” He points to a chair.

Sam immediately sits fully upright.

To review then. There are no dialog tags in this example. The reader clearly understands who is talking. The scene has a couple of themes. The first is that Sam has been summoned and is worried. The second is that the Archangel does not want Sam to believe an out-of-control situation is happening. The third, Sam is pleased she knew that some problem exists. Fourth, the Archangel can’t figure out any other way to present the facts than directly. The fifth Sam is taken back at the idea that a soul and guide are missing. The sixth Sam is now at full attention as to what is coming.

There are a few subtle things as well. The Archangel likes Sam and is a bit arrogant about his status in the hereafter. Sam respects the Archangel but does play into the arrogance.

I am not suggesting my way is the right way but perhaps a way that might prove helpful.

How about you? How do you separate different conversations among characters and demonstrate emotion? Let us know in the comments what works for you.


83 thoughts on “Gestures and Dialogue – A Perfect Show Don’t Tell Team.

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  2. I have always enjoyed your use of dialog, John. I particularly like this example of it. I have been focused on taking the tags out when I can. It really does make a difference to see how they are reacting, plus it tells you who is taking. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Like you, I love using dialogue to tell the story. I’m not a big fan of tags though I must say that if there are a few people involved, it can get confusing without the proper (I’ve learned something new) beats! I’m telling ya, with all the great stuff you share, I’ll be well-equipped should I ever, yanno, write more than a 100-word story!

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  6. I, too, think/plan through dialogue. I build everything else around it. I’ve gotten better at not using tags unless necessary. I prefer to show the characters’ actions/reactions during the dialogue. Great post, John! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post and a wonderful example of writing without tags! I also attempt to keep tags to a minimum, averaging about one “said” per page. I do tend to get lost when there’s a long string of dialog without any action beats or tags. It requires me to pay attention to keep it straight, and sometimes I have to backtrack. For those reasons, I prefer a sprinkling of gestures and action beats, similar to your example. I’m also a visual reader who likes “watching” the books I read, so I think I tend to be more visual in my writing. Like Mae and Judi mentioned, a mix works pretty well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I do love me some good dialogue. Attributor tags are important, though not to be over-done. I’ve read stories where they are virtually non-existent. I get lost as to which character is talking, then have to back up and set things in their proper order. That bogs me down as a reader. I usually dump out of such stories–unless the tale is holding my attention. Now, if the voices of the characters are unique, then it’s not an issue. Another excellent post, John!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a fan of dialogue, myself. I’ve had stories play out in my head, like a dream, and all I have is the dialogue to start out with. But it’s usually a good basis for me. I also agree that tags can often disrupt the story. Great share, John! Can’t wait until the next!

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  10. I love dialogue. It shows the characters’ personalities and is a great way to convey information as long as the characters don’t dump in backstory that they would already know. Unnatural and stilted dialogue stands out when I’m reading a story. A good discussion regarding tags and beats, John.

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  11. Like Mae, I try to vary sentence and paragraph structure, so that sometimes, I put an action tag at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. If there are only two people, I might not use a tag at all. It’s all according to the rhythm and flow of the story. And if an Archangel summoned me, I’d show up:)

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  12. I’ll use the occasional tag (mostly “said” or “asked,” which are practically invisible at this point), but I also prefer beats if I’m going to attribute the dialogue. If I only have two people in a scene, I’ll often have a run of dialogue with no attribution at all. Readers should be able to tell by the individual voices who is saying what. But long story short, beats convey a lot more information than tags can. Great topic, John.

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  13. Well done, John. You shine through your dialogues. Tags, as well as excessive descriptions or novel words, slow a reader down. When the writer becomes the character, all is transformed. How to get to that point is both skill and gift. Thank you for this! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m a descriptive writer but I also enjoy using dialogue. I’ll use tags occasionally, scattered here and there, but mostly I rely on beats when spoken dialogue isn’t enough to convey the feelings of the character. Sometimes that comes before the dialogue, after, or even interspersed in the middle if the dialogue passage is lengthy. Mostly, I try to employ a good balance of both. I’m not a fan of he said/she said and will avoid tags as much as feasibly possible. It’s a juggling act, LOL.

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  15. I am in agreement with the use of gestures or actions as opposed to tags. It keeps the reader in the story, as you said John, and it is a way to show the speaker’s personality as well. Thank you for sharing this post and I love the excerpt! Looking forward to the new book!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I much prefer beats to tags. Great post, John, with some good examples of beats to show tension and emotion. A constant string of dialogue with nothing else turns me off, but the beats really help break that up and offer emphasis. Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I also use a lot of dialog. It comes from being in a zone of buddy stories and team stories. I should go back to a first person narrative for a while, which tones it down some. There’s more internal dialog, but it comes across differently.

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  18. I use a lot of dialogue when writing. In fact, it’s a challenge for me to write scenes without dialogue! I use tags on occasion, but like you I try to convey the character’s emotions through body language. There’s nothing more boring than reading a passage of dialogue with a lot of “he said, she said.” Good post, John.

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  19. I use dialogue a lot, too, but I also use tags – sometimes before the character speaks, sometimes after. When an author uses tags with every line of dialogue it’s a distraction and makes for a bumpy reading ride that’s enough to put me right off. I enjoyed this, John – and your Samantha sounds like an intriguing character.

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