Today's editing tip is a twofer, so hang onto the seat of your pants. This one will help you deal with showing vs. telling, and it will also improve your dialogue. Are you ready?
Use blocking instead of unnecessary dialogue tags.
Blocking, in case the term is unfamiliar, is how you describe the characters' movements within the scene, rather like stage directions in a play. Most people don't stand or sit completely still when they speak; they fidget, they move around. If someone were to stay motionless, rigid, that would probably indicate some sort of internal distress. Letting your characters move a bit can make them feel more natural.
You can try giving characters habits, like poker "tells", to indicate specific moods. But you don't want to overdo it, and use the exact same movement every time. Verb choice can also show a reader how your characters are feeling. Jogging, running, and fleeing all have different connotations, but describe similar movements.
Within dialogue, you can use blocking to show a character's mood, or the relationship between two or more individuals. Here's an example of what that might look like:
“Hush, baby girl, it’s all right, everything is all right,” I told her, reaching out to sweep her up in a hug.
She scurried back, away from me, pulling her blankets up tighter. “I want Mama." A steady stream of tears began carving their way down her dirty cheeks. "Want MAMA!"
Without any other information, just the blocking, a reader should be able to tell a lot about the dynamics between these two. Hopefully this mini-scene should also create an emotional response in the reader, and a lot of that labor depends on the blocking and not on the dialogue. (And notice there's only one dialogue tag.)
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!