(A table of contents is available. This series will remain open for additional posts and the table of contents up-to-date as new posts are added.)
Part Seven: Don’t Neglect Action
Since dialogue is one of our main tools for passing information between characters about what’s happening not only in the plot but also in terms of character arcs and development, our stories can start to feel as though the action scenes are just cushions between talking scenes. I myself have felt sometimes as though I’m just hopping from conversation to conversation. It can be difficult to know when you’re striking the right balance between action and dialogue.
Know your focus.
Generally a scene will have a purpose to perform within the story as a whole. Maybe it’s to have a certain event take place or to showcase a character’s change in perspective. Think about what your goal with a scene is–and more often than not, a scene will have more than one! Depending on what the main point of the it is, a scene will tend one way or the other naturally, born out of that purpose.
Not every big developmental moment is built out of a dramatic conversation. The temptation toward melodramatic lines like in TV shows and movies is huge, but it can be just as powerful to keep something in just glances and actions your characters take. Conversely, not every moment comes out of a visual reveal. Don’t feel like you have to change the focus, but do consider new and interesting ways to serve that focus and whether its natural tendency toward narration or dialogue is the best option for it this time.
If it feels like your story is suffering a little from too many scenes of one or the other, try finding another way to convey the information that is the focus of the scene whether that’s switching a conversation to something more focused on your characters doing something or the other way around, toying with the trope may reveal a new way of doing things you hadn’t considered previously.
Stay aware of your flow.
It’s hard to do while writing, but luckily, first drafts aren’t meant to be carved in stone, so during your re-reads and re-drafts, make sure you’re concentrating on and conscious of the scenes that are built mostly of dialogue or action. It seems so tempting to alternate them, but creating that kind of rhythm can become wearing and predictable for the reader, and it really will start to feel as though you’re just hopping from conversation to conversation with pillows of action between (or the other way around). Instead, find ways to blend the flow together by finding scenes where action can happen at the same time as a conversation. Often, two scenes can be combined and their dual goals achieved simultaneously. It’s not the first idea that comes to us, but in much the same way that two side characters can be combined to the same functions, scenes may work better in your story by working together. Give it a try when you feel like the flow of a story is stunted by a split focus.
Dialogue and action work together.
Perhaps the most obvious of advice is simply the reminder that these two techniques–narration and speech–work together. While it’s certainly an option to have a scene exist completely as dialogue, or an entire scene solely be narration of action, “best practices” for writing say that you should try to mix the two into each of your scenes. The focus of your scene isn’t the only thing in there–there’s also the wind up to the focus and the transition out of that moment and into the next scene. Find ways to interweave actions with your conversations and the other way around so that things still continue to happen. The last thing we want is for our stories to come to a dead stop so two characters can talk.
Think about how you can give action to your characters. Not just any action, however, but action that progresses the story. Can you still describe the environment while they talk? Can you still give tidbits of backstory while they discuss? Can you observe mannerisms and culture and speech habits while they argue? Can they continue their banter while continuing to work? Blending narration with your dialogue will help you avoid the use of things like emphasis formatting and overuse of ellipses. Instead of relying on those tricks, your narration will provide the pause in beat that the ellipses represents. You’ll build your action and your characters in scenes together.
Narration interspersed with dialogue can provide a unique challenge in that you’re asking your audience to pay attention to two threads at once: what’s being said, and what’s being done. It doesn’t seem too complex, and on the surface, it’s not, however it’s important to keep in mind with dialogue that the phrases being said by people are meant to be in response to each other (most times). Spreading the responses too far apart from each other with description and action can lead to confusion; readers may have to step back and reread the dialogue from before in order to see how the responses are related. That’s no good; it pulls your reader right out of the immersive experience you’ve built for them.
Ideally, narration in amongst your dialogue lines should be kept short: a couple of sentences, a minimal paragraph at most. If you do have to separate the lines substantially, try to recall what’s been said previously within the character’s response. Maybe they repeat part of the question, maybe they ask for clarification, maybe they’re sarcastic, who knows. Keep your audience connected with the conversation as best you can. Yes, you want it to feel like a natural conversation, but if your characters take the time to do something or observe something that takes more than a couple of paragraphs before getting back to what they were talking about, probably not even they are going to remember exactly where they left off. Help a reader out.
Next up: Remainder sentences!