Emotion in Dialogue with Ursula K. LeGuin
Just as I’m re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I get the news. Ursula K. Le’Guin, a writer whose work has taught me more than maybe any other, has passed away. So I’m writing this as a tribute of sorts to her, for what little its worth. I’d like to start by taking a look at how she delivers emotion during dialogue.
There’s a difficult balance to strike when we try to emote through fiction, but I have frequently pinballed between the extremes of melodrama and distant emotionlessness. The common advice for avoiding melodrama and evoking emotion is to show your character’s emotions instead of telling them.
Speaking from experience, taking this advice to its extreme leads to scenes that read as overly technical and distant, and makes it hard for readers to actually understand the emotion that the writer is trying to portray.
LeGuin gives us a much more nuanced look at delivering emotions during dialogues.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a technical masterpiece. It manages to be a largely internal, introspective piece of fiction that still maintains a slow burning suspense for 300 pages. Its key selling point, for a lot of readers, is the deeply imagined world it explores, one that overturns and re-imagines some of Western society’s longest held institutional and social structures.
It also has an interesting way of depicting the narrator’s emotions during dialogue, which can be seen in the following short excerpt. At this point in the story, we know that the narrator (Genly Ai) is a visitor from a distant planet (Earth) who often struggles to engage with a society he doesn’t understand. His key guide in this world is Estraven, the Prime Minister of this monarchy, and after two years, Estraven has finally invited Genly to his home for dinner.
Begin with the final paragraph. That’s where all of Le’Guin’s work to this moment really pays off–the conversation after this point veers off in another direction, and this paragraph punctuates this short exchange. Quite powerfully, I’d say. It seems clear to me that what the character feels here is anger and betrayal.
How is this passage accomplishing that?
Clearly, LeGuin is telling, to a certain degree. She doesn’t say “I felt angry and betrayed” but she’s not quite showing anything–there isn’t a lot of sensory detail there. We don’t have a scene or even a physical action. What we do have is an interpretation of events delivered to us. Genly Ai interprets Estraven’s motives delivers them to us in a pithy, obviously angry speech. The feelings are more specific than vague adjectives such as “angry.” Instead of saying “I’m angry,” Ai says “Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty” revealing a clear break in values for our narrator.
Out of context, this paragraph could easily read as melodramatic.
But it doesn’t, because of all the work that’s been done to build to this point to add context and weight to the relationship between these two characters. So what is the context?
Let’s take a look at the context LeGuin adds in order.
1. Before we even get to this conversation, we have a fairly drawn out section of the narrator wondering why he’s been invited to dinner only now, two years into his relationship with Estraven. This mystery is built up for several pages, until we feel the answer is so important that we need to know it. (And a note of genius here: the mystery is actually prolonged by the cultural differences and understandings between these characters).
2. Ai interprets the way that Estraven is speaking in line with his fears (“He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself”). Because it is obviously interpretive, as readers we sense this may not be the answer–we have seen Ai misinterpret people several times already in this novel.
3. Ai gives us a very specific, detailed breakdown of his relationship with Estraven. It shows how helpful Estraven has come to be, and why Ai has grown to trust him. Although it’s really told through summary, it’s evocative to a certain degree because of how specific it is. We get a mini montage, we come to understand that Estraven is Ai’s only help in this world. This important piece of context helps us understand Ai’s emotional motivations.
4. Notice that most of the outward dialogue does not truly betray Ai’s emotional state. With the context, we can sense that he’s growing emotional in some way, but also it feels like he’s holding back. It’s important for him not to have some insane outward explosion of emotion–it would feel melodramatic. There are 2 key exceptions to this:
This line: “You’ve led me to rely on you–”
–This line shows the rising sense of betrayal. A less skilled writer might have grown off of this, but LeGuin squashes it immediately, not even allowing Ai to finish the sentence before Estraven apologizes.
And finally, this line: “I’m sorry that your kindness to me had made trouble for you.”
–LeGuin describes this as “coals of fire” which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the entire conversation. The conversation burns red with anger, but not like fire, in wild spurts, but subtly, controlled. This piece of dialogue is of course magnificent in part because it’s anger parading as an apology. This is Ai’s attempt to undercut Estraven’s face-saving techniques.
You can probably guess the short answer to building emotion: context. When you want an emotional moment, it’s important for you to understand your character’s emotional motivation–why do they feel the way they feel in this moment? LeGuin here delivers that context through conflict and misunderstandings and through detailed, specific summary. It’s the history between these characters that opens up the emotional motivation of the character.