Robert Gosnell, screenwriter, mentor, and teacher taught me an extremely important lesson one day after I was finished beating my head against the wall TRYING to figure out how to convey the right emotion...silently, without dialogue. The use of physical proxies.
Believe me, this is NOT just a technique for screenwriters.
The first thing I try to incorporate into my screenwriting process, and I know many screenwriters do this, is an ability to watch the movie as I'm writing it. When I have emotional information I want to convey; the kind which would be delivered through narrative in a novel, I picture the scene, the characters and the interaction going on and ask myself how each character would translate that information through an action, a reaction, a look, a tone or dialogue subtext.
If it's going to come through dialogue, then I'm looking for subtext. I don't want a literal translation of emotion into words, I want to say it in subtext that is unique to that character's attitude.
Remember that scene from "Rocky" that I use in class, (LAS: watch Rocky and this scene) where Mickey, the Burgess Meridith character, goes to Rocky's little apartment, in hopes of talking Rocky into letting him be his manager? I chose that scene to study, mostly because I wanted to demonstrate how to effectively keep a long scene interesting. That scene was more than seven minutes long. Seven minutes of dialogue. Theoretically, that should be death, yet the scene played beautifully. The conflict was set up earlier, when Mickey told Rocky he should retire, and took Rocky's locker away from him, giving it to an up-and-coming fighter. Now, he wants to be Rocky's manager.
What I also point out in this scene is how well it added complexity to Rocky's character, using irony and opposing traits. Here's where we get to the physical proxies. Mickey is following Rocky around the room, making his case, talking about his experience, showing Rocky pictures of young Mickey as a boxer.
And, what does Rocky do? He keeps moving away from Mickey. (LAS: Here is the physical proxy...the silent part, though it doesn't always have to be silent to use this technique) He throws darts at a dart board. He gets a beer from the refrigerator. He walks to his bedroom. Finally, when all else fails, he goes into the bathroom and closes the door.
Here's a big, tough, heavyweight fighter, and what is he doing? Avoiding confrontation. He keeps telling Mickey, "The fights set. I don't need no manager." But, we know what's really going on. Mickey gave up on him. Mickey told him to quit. Mickey hurt his feelings. You could see it, stirring around inside him. You knew the reason he was saying "no." Nobody had to tell us, because Rocky showed us. The only time it was really addressed was in Rocky's bedroom. Mickey follows him in and sees a poster of the heavyweight legend Rocky Graziano on the wall. He remarks that Rocky reminds him of Graziano. "You move like him. You got heart." Rocky replies, "Yeah, I got heart. But, I ain't got no locker, do I, Mick?"
Now, let's look at it from Mickey's point-of-view. Look at the action he takes to convince Rocky. He brings a picture of himself as a young fighter to show Rocky--who just remarks that he hasn't taken very good care of the picture. Mickey relates exploits of some of his tough fights. He insists that Rocky needs him. Nobody has to tell us Mickey is desperate for this. We can see it in his demeanor. When Rocky finally goes into the bathroom and shuts the door in Mickey's face, you can see the fight go out of Mickey. You can see the defeat on his face and in his manner. He wearily rests his forehead against the bathroom door and mumbles..."I'm 76 years old." Subtext for "this is my last chance." From confident hope to desperation to defeat to utter resignation, all shown through his actions, reactions, subtext, facial expressions and body language.
Think of it as mime, if you like. Think of it as silent films. Ask yourself, "What if there is no sound? How can I show what my character is feeling?" If your character is well developed; well rounded, the right action for that character to express his inner feelings will be there. Rocky was a brute with a soft spot. Tough and crude, yet sensitive and vulnerable. Those conflicting traits going on inside him caused him to react to a given situation in his own unique, personal way. So, his "physical proxies" were his, alone.
Like I said, nothing really new, just a mindset to help express emotions visually.
Perhaps it's nothing new, but to me, a light bulb went off. I hope this helps shine some light in your writing.