One of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers is to “show not tell.” It’s a gentle reminder that there is more to a story than simply dialogue and narration. Establishing dynamic visual language will tell your audience far more about your characters than they could tell the audience themselves.
After all, it might be easy to have a character outright state how they’re feeling, but it’s rarely believable. If you want an audience to learn about your character’s mood, motivation, or intentions, find ways to represent that information visually. A little subtext will go a long way towards helping your audience understand and maybe even relate to your character.
For example, think about a hot cup of tea left all day to cool. What kind of cup is it? Dainty china or a well-loved mug? Who poured it? Who was supposed to drink it? Why didn’t they?
Details like these can help set the tone of a scene while conveying a lot about who a character is and their state of mind.
What kind of tea is it? How does your character take it? Do they even like tea?
The more questions you ask yourself about a character, the more that character will begin to feel real. And if they feel real to you, they’ll feel real to your audience. Even if you don’t explain every detail about your character’s life in excruciating detail--and you shouldn’t!--make sure to take advantage of how much information you can convey visually and consider what each element says about your character. Without these small, familiar touches, an audience will have a harder time relating to your character. And if they don’t relate to them, your audience will have a harder time caring about them. Mysterious strangers are interesting and all, but are rarely enough to build an entire story around.
Focusing on something small and seemingly innocuous can also have the effect of making big story moments feel even larger.
Consider again that cold cup of tea. Maybe the character who was supposed to drink it forgot about it that morning as they rushed out the door. Maybe they’ve been out all day and just had the worst day of their life but they got through it. It’s over now. And maybe that night, when they return home and they see that cold cup of tea, that’s what finally causes them to break down. They sink down to the floor and cry. And it’s such a small thing, that cold cup of tea, but maybe, in that moment, it’s just too much. The day they had might seem so much worse in comparison if we’ve seen this character face everything with a determined smile, only to be defeated by something that at any other time wouldn’t matter.
There’s so much subtext that a writer can convey just by focusing on these seemingly minor details. Find the ones that will help you bring your story to life.