Thursday, January 24, 2019

Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion

subtext, emotion, adding emotion to your scenes,
By Becca Puglisi, @beccapuglisi

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Tapping into the hidden emotions and subtext of a scene is a wonderful way to pull readers into that scene. Becca Puglisi visits the lecture hall today to share her tips on creating subtext and using vocal cues to show the hidden emotional layers of your characters.

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and author of bestselling books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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Take it away Becca...

Do we have any Tolkien fans in the house? I distinctly remember, as a teen, reading The Hobbit by the fire on a rare cold evening in Florida. It quickly became a favorite that I would re-read until my copy literally fell to pieces.

One of my very favorite scenes from that book comes right at the beginning: the Unexpected Party. There are a lot of reasons why it works so well—one of which is the inclusion of everything Bilbo is not saying. When the dwarves arrive (and keep arriving), he wants to know what they’re doing there, but instead of asking, he puts on his Happy Homemaker face and gets to work being hospitable. When it grows late, he doesn’t show them the door. He refrains from telling Thorin to get off his high horse and show some gratitude for Bilbo funding his little reunion, though you know that’s what he’s thinking.

The interactions between Bilbo and the dwarves in this scene ring true precisely because of all the subtext—the contrast between what the character says and what he’s really feeling or thinking. This subtext is a normal part of most real-life conversations; for this reason alone, it should be included in our characters’ interactions. But it’s also useful because whenever a character is hiding something, there’s inherent emotion involved. Emotion is good for our stories because well-written, clearly conveyed character emotion will often engage the reader’s emotions, pulling them deeper into what’s happening. So subtext is good on a number of levels.

But writing about hidden emotion is challenging. Authors have to show the character portraying one emotion to the cast (pleasure, in Bilbo’s case) while showing his true feelings to the reader (confusion, frustration, and indignance). It’s kind of a tall order, but this is where vocal cues can come in handy.

Vocal cues are shifts in the voice that happen when someone is feeling emotional.

While we may be able to hide our feelings by masking our facial expressions and minimizing certain body language giveaways, the voice is harder to control. In a written scene, these vocal fluctuations can act like signposts, leading the reader to the conclusions you want them to draw about the character’s true emotional state.

So when you need to show that a character is hiding their feelings from others, consider the following vocal cues.
Pitch: Does the voice get high and shrill or go low and rumbly?

Volume: Does the character move from a moderated level to almost yelling? Does the voice drop to a near whisper? Is it clear that they’re struggling to maintain a reasonable volume?

Tone: Does a clear tone turn breathy or husky when someone is aroused? When the character is close to tears, does the voice become brittle or cracked? Does it lose all expression and become flat when anger hits?

Speech Patterns: Does your verbose character suddenly clam up? Does her timid, verbally stumbling counterpart start running at the mouth? Might poor grammar appear in a well-educated character’s dialogue? Does a stammer or lisp announce itself?

Word Choice: What words might slip into a character’s vernacular when they’re feeling emotional that they wouldn’t normally use? Profanity and slurs?Words and phrases from their first language? Pat clich├ęs?

Nonspeech Interruptions: What sounds begin to pepper your character’s dialogue? Um, Hmm, Uhhh, throat clearing, and coughing can be signs that the character is uncomfortable and needs time to pull him or herself together.
For your character, consider which of these cues might be a possibility, thenwrite it into the story when their emotion changes. Used consistently, they’ll signal the reader that the character is hiding something or that a certain emotion is in play.

Granted, for this to work, you need to first establish a baseline. Figure out your character’s normal speech patterns and habits and write those consistently so readers will get used to them. Then, when a vocal cue is used, they’ll know to take a closer look to see what the character is hiding.

What vocal cue might work well for your character? What cues have you seen successfully used to hint at hidden emotion? I’d love to hear from you. And for more information (and a handy reference), check out the Deception in Dialogue Tip Sheet at One Stop for Writers.

About The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

becca puglisi, angela ackermanThe bestselling Emotion Thesaurus, often hailed as "the gold standard for writers" and credited with transforming how writers craft emotion, has now been expanded to include 55 new entries!

One of the biggest struggles for writers is how to convey emotion to readers in a unique and compelling way. When showing our characters' feelings, we often use the first idea that comes to mind, and they end up smiling, nodding, and frowning too much.

If you need inspiration for creating characters' emotional responses that are personalized and evocative, this ultimate show-don't-tell guide for emotion can help. It includes:
  • Body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for 130 emotions that cover a range of intensity from mild to severe, providing innumerable options for individualizing a character's reactions
  • A breakdown of the biggest emotion-related writing problems and how to overcome them
  • Advice on what should be done before drafting to make sure your characters' emotions will be realistic and consistent
  • Instruction for how to show hidden feelings and emotional subtext through dialogue and nonverbal cues
And much more!

The Emotion Thesaurus, in its easy-to-navigate list format, will inspire you to create stronger, fresher character expressions and engage readers from your first page to your last.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound 


  1. I have over 50 books all related to the craft of writing, and hands-down The Emotion Thesaurus has proved to be my most valuable. Thank you for a great article -- and an incredible book!

  2. Oh, I'm so happy to hear it! What are some other of your favorite craft books?