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What emojis tell us about good dialogue
Writing with a reader’s eye
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What emojis tell us about good dialogue

Do you use emojis when you text? I tried for a bit; never quite got the hang of it. But recently I’ve been prompted to consider why a fat, pink heart may say more to us than the word ‘love’ or ‘xx’, and what this tells us about good dialogue.

Emojis have become an accepted way to communicate a thought or emotion succinctly. While they often act as shorthand, they can also enhance and amplify the meaning of the written word. We use emojis because we recognise the power of an image, however basic, to communicate something unsaid. We hanker for more than words. Our desire to communicate other layers of meaning had lead to the development of more sophisticated emojis employing animated graphics and sound. We hanker for more than words and a two-dimensional image.

It is the same with dialogue on the page. The more I read the more I realise that the key to good dialogue lies not in what is said between characters, but in the narrative snippets between quoted speech that reveal what is not said. If you think cinematically, these snippets are the camera showing us what the characters look like and how they are positioned in the setting. Body language is a huge part of face-to-face communication, and without some sense of the unspoken physical exchange that occurs between characters, dialogue can fall flat.

Simple descriptions of what characters look and sound like when they are speaking or listening are like adding emojis, enhancing the meaning of the words. For example, a character may be sitting, absentmindedly playing with the hem of her skirt as she timidly asks her best friend’s advice; or glaring at the fruit bowl, unwavering in his attention to the brown spot on the apple as he listens to his mother’s loud rebuke. You can picture the options for relevant emojis. Similar descriptive narration about the setting helps the reader to witness the scene and to feel the heat of the stuffy room, or sense the anticipation of a formal dinner setting.

What lifts dialogue to the next level, however, is beyond what the camera shows us; it is the artistry of a good sound track. Music plays a key role in screen-based story telling, adding emotional depth to a scene, prompting and guiding conscious and unconscious responses to what is being played out before us. On the silent page a similar effect can be achieved by reference to a specific image or detail that resonates beyond what is being described, suggesting a character’s inner world in that moment, or more of their outer world, amplifying the dramatic tension. Such telling details enrich further the words, the body language and the setting of a dialogue scene. Let me give you some examples.

In this scene from Nick Earls’s The True Story of Butterfish (Vintage 2009), the narrator’s brother casually mentions something unexpected about the narrator’s ex.

          ‘But you’d know she’s getting married again. You would have heard that from her.’
          I felt like I was falling, a long way and into something dark. It was hard to breathe. Married again. He had really said that. ‘No. No, I haven’t heard from her for a while.’ I was looking at the table, at an ant that was crawling across the glass. Even my own voice seemed like it was coming from far away.
          ‘Oh. She sent out a group email, but I figured she’d talked to you separately...’

The description of the feeling is strong, but that ant, and the narrator’s attention to it, tells us so much more about his emotional state in that moment.

In the opening scene of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (Bloomsbury 2016), Beverley and Fix are hosting a christening party. Well into the party, Fix opens the front door to Cousins, a work colleague he barely knows, who has turned up uninvited:
          ‘This makes a boy and a girl?’
          ‘Two girls.’
          Cousins shrugged. ‘What can you do?’
          ‘Not a thing,’ Fix said and closed the door. Beverly had told him to leave it open so they could get some air, which went to show how much she knew about man’s inhumanity to man. It didn’t matter how many people were in the house. You didn’t leave the goddamn door open.

Fix’s annoyance and discomfort is supercharged by the focus on the door. And his transference of irritation to his wife tells us something about their relationship, and perhaps about accepted gender relations of the time (1960s).
In this scene from Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Raven 2019), the narrator is probing Peter about the reasons he is being blackmailed.

          ‘You know me, Peter, so you know what it takes for me to ask such a thing,’ I say. ‘I must have all the pieces of this nasty business to hand.’
          He considers this, returning to the window with his drink. Not that there’s much to see. The trees have grown so close to the house the branches are pressed right up against the glass. Judging by Peter’s demeanour, he’d invite them inside now if he could.
          ‘Charles Cunningham’s parentage isn’t why I’m being blackmailed, ‘he says...

Here the narrator is making the link between the outer and inner worlds, illustrating his own powers of observation.

Paying attention on the page to what is unsaid when characters speak to one another can make a tremendous difference to the effectiveness of a scene featuring dialogue. I have found myself searching for these snippets of enhancing detail when I read, enjoying the insight they provide not only into the characters and the scene in play, but also into the writer and their imaginative capacities.

I could express this delight as a fat, pink heart, but somehow an emoji just doesn’t quite do it.