Dialogue vs. Narrative vs. Action
Dialogue: The words exchanged by characters in a conversation.
Narrative: a report of related events presented to readers.
Action: a description of the physical occurrences in a story.
A well-balanced story has all three elements. In fact, a well-balanced scene should have all three elements, though one may dominate. Too much dialogue can become exhausting. Too much narrative can be boring and cumbersome. Too much action can be overwhelming.
Pace your scenes. If the story is moving too slowly, add some dialogue. If there’s too much action, add a reflective/reset scene with some narrative. Are the characters talking too much about things that are better using internal narrative? Are they too much in their heads and need to talk to someone else?
Dialogue is the greatest tool for creating your characters, giving their motivations, fears, and desires. But it’s not enough to make the scene scintillate.
Dialogue can be the easiest thing to write, or it can be the most difficult. Sometimes at the same time! Common mistakes are:
- Too formal
- Too realistic
- Obtrusive dialogue tags/’said’
- Overuse of names or pronouns
- Talking head syndrome
- Homogenous characters
- Explaining the dialogue
- Too formal
We’re writers. I get it. We want to use proper grammar. But not all your characters will speak with perfect grammar. People speak in incomplete sentences, colloquialisms, accents, and filler words. They say things like “I literally died!” and “If I was you…” and “Prolly!”
In addition, people don’t tend to give long diatribes in complex sentences, because they’ve usually not worked out the perfect words beforehand, like a good speechwriter does.
- Too realistic
I mentioned filler words above. In real speech, people use words like ‘uh,’ ‘um,’ ‘er,’ ‘like,’ etc. constantly, especially those who are searching for the right words or are uncomfortable speaking. While a few of these are fine to emphasize a character’s discomfort, don’t use as many as they really use.
In addition, let’s talk about accents and dialect. Interesting characters can have interesting accents. My advice is to use such things sparingly. Use different words to portray regional accents (like pop vs. soda) and go light on the pronunciation differences (‘I’m tellin’ ya’ vs. ‘Ahm tellin’ ya’). A little goes a long way.
You can also change the order of words according to the native language of the speaker. For instance, articles in Russian are either missing or optional, so many Russians leave them out in English. “I go to house and pick up sister,” suggests a Slavic speaker.
Phonetic spellings is another tool of portraying accent or dialect. Again, use very sparingly. Making the reader stop and pronounce the word either out loud or subvocal can interrupt the flow. In addition, it can be seen as mocking a region, class, race, or background, so be cautious and respectful.
- Obtrusive dialogue tags/’said’
“I can’t see!” John said.
“Well, open your eyes!” Jane said.
“I have – it’s still dark.” John said.
“Wait, let me turn the light up.” Jane said.
As you can see, that’s annoying. Most readers will ignore the words ‘said’, but at a certain point, it becomes noticeable, like above.
“I can’t see!” John whined.
“Well, open your eyes!” Jane responded.
“I have – it’s still dark.” John complained.
“Wait, let me turn the light up.” Jane sighed.
A little better, but too contrived. You can tell the author is trying too hard to not use ‘said.’ A better approach is to combine action tags and reactions to indicate who is speaking.
John whined, “I can’t see!”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Well, open your eyes!”
“I have – it’s still dark.” John’s voice rose in panicked confusion.
Jane fumbled with the lamp controls. “Wait, let me turn the light up.”
Also, notice how some of the tags are before the speech itself. That lets the reader know who is speaking so the words are colored with that character’s voice in their mind. To put it after and make them guess can result in a disconnect in their mental ‘performance’ of the dialogue, and interrupt the reader’s flow.
- Overuse of names or pronouns
Consider this dialogue:
“Hey, John, what’s up?”
“Not much, Jim. Did you finish that project?”
“No, John, I forgot. Sorry!”
“No worries, Jim. I can get it next week.”
While the advantage is you don’t need dialogue tags, real people don’t talk like this. The opposite problem can also be bad:
Jim approached his co-worker, John. “Hey, what’s up?”
He glanced at him, noticing his furrowed brow. “Not much. Did you finish that project?”
He shook his head, chucking him on the shoulder. “No, I forgot. Sorry!”
With a smile, he shrugged. “No worries. I can get it next week.”
Did you lose track of which he was which? Make certain you don’t overuse the pronouns, or make sure it’s clear who is who within both the action and the dialogue.
- ‘Talking head syndrome’:
“John, where have you been?”
“Oh, just… out.”
“You know, errands. The bank, haircut, library.”
“Think you’re cute, don’t you? Howard called. He said you were playing slots again.”
No actions, no narrative, no reactions, just words. Did you lose track of who was speaking? Who is talking TO John? Do we even know their gender? Are you clueless to setting? Is John making tea? Getting dressed? Petting the dog? Let’s try this again.
Tanya crossed her arms, her eyes glittering with annoyance. “John, where have you been?”
After shaking the rain from his coat, John hung it on the peg by the door. “Oh, just… out.”
He shrugged, trying to sound casual, and slid past her toward the kitchen. “You know, errands. The bank, haircut, library.”
Narrowing her eyes, Tanya’s glare intensified as she stomped in after him. “Think you’re cute, don’t you? Howard called. He said you were playing slots again.”
The additions of a few actions, a few elements of the setting, and some narrative of the characters reactions (sounding casual, annoyed, glare intensified) bring this scene to life and give a much better picture of how each character is acting, why, and how their partner is reacting to those actions, above and beyond the words. Body language, subtext, and hidden agendas can now be highlighted.
- Homogenous characters
Dialogue is a fantastic tool to differentiate your characters and highlight their personalities, motivations, fears, habits, etc. If all your characters sound the same, the reader may have a hard time keeping them separate in their mind.
Whenever I create a character profile, I note their goals, fears, pet phrases, favorite foods, hobbies, etc., to help color their actions and dialogue, and so each character is distinct.
- One character may curse a lot while another prefers a euphemistic phrase, like “Oh, fudge!”
- Some characters are more eloquent, and some less expressive.
- Politeness levels
- Education levels
- Teenagers speak with a different rhythm, speed, and slang than elders. ‘Yeet’ vs. ‘groovy’
- Explaining the dialogue
This is when the narrative near the dialogue is explaining to the reader what just happened. If you’ve done the dialogue and action tag well, usually such explanations are redundant.
Some examples, with the redundant parts highlighted:
“That’s unfair! I hate you!” John slammed the door and stormed to his room. He was furious with his best friend.
Carol turned with a sigh to apologize to her husband. “I’m so sorry, Don.”
Brian looked into the sky to search for the planet. “I can’t see Mars at all. Can you?”
Narrative isn’t just the description behind the dialogue. It can contain several elements, such as plot, setting, characters, point of view, theme, symbolism, and conflict. Each scene can contain some or all of these, as well as dialogue and action. The most effective writers use all three in combination to advance the information needed.
- Passage of time
- “As you know, Bob…”
- Beware of unbroken blocks
- Setting up a plot
- Describe setting
- Describe characters
- Inner conflict
Passage of time.
Dialogue is immediate, now, and real-time. Narrative can bring the story forward hours, days, even years, with just a few sentences.
Twelve years later, Tarren couldn’t believe she was now the mother of two teenagers.
“As you know, Bob…”
One mistake some writers make is using dialogue when narrative is more suited. For example, one common fallacy is called the “As you know, Bob…” In this, one character explains history or back story to another who already has this data. Both characters know it, so there is no need for the dialogue, but in order to inform readers of this information, the writer includes it. This should be in narrative instead.
“As you know, Alice, my Death Ray depends on codfish balls.”
“Damn it, Bob, you know full well that Alice hasn’t been the same since that tragic codfish incident.”
Unbroken narrative blocks are difficult to read.
Though this fish, whose loud sonorous breathing, or rather blowing, has furnished a proverb to landsmen, is so well known a denizen of the deep, yet is he not popularly classed among whales. But possessing all the grand distinctive features of the leviathan, most naturalists have recognized him for one. He is of moderate octavo size, varying from fifteen to twenty-five feet in length, and of corresponding dimensions round the waist.
Setting up a plot
Narrative fills in the bits that aren’t as suited to dialogue and action, like internal decisions and character observations. Flashbacks, considerations, back story, these are all elements suited to narrative descriptions.
Sara didn’t remember much about her mother. She had always smelled of gardenias and had a tinkling laugh. Sara realized she couldn’t even remember her mother’s face. In a panic, she climbed into the attic and searched for a particular old box. After a few paper cuts and several sneezes, she pulled out the old photo album, wiped off the dust, and opened it, a slow smile crossing her face. The picture of a woman with curly brown hair, a sweet smile, and dark eyes. Sara wondered what really happened to her.
Poignant? Intriguing? That last sentence sets up a mystery. This could be done in dialogue, if someone else were present, but this treatment is more intimate, more personal. This is her private memory, something to be held close and treasured.
One big part of narrative is setting, which is one of my favorite tools. I love creating immersive settings in a cinematic style. I love describing the view, scents, and tactile sensations a character experiences to bring the reader right into the story.
She walked along the forest path, rotting autumn leaves touched with frost crunching under her soft, calfskin boots. Skeletal branches tugged at her cloak as she passed, scratching her cheek with thoughtless menace.
Were you there? Could you feel the branches? Hear the crunching of the leaves? While I combined action with narrative, most of this was narrative-centered. This scene used just a few sentences, but incorporated sight, scent, touch, and sound. Using at least two or three of the senses in each scene setting helps to anchor the reader in place.
Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”
Tolkein could do it – but it takes a master. Sprinkle that information throughout the book, a tidbit at a time. Imagine your information on backstory is like a piece of candy. Too much at once can make the reader sick to their stomach, so dole them out at judicious times. Make them search for the clues. Make them eager to find the clues, like ET following a line of Reese’s Pieces.
Michelle glanced over her manuscript, her lip curling in an expression of disgust. She really hated where she’d left it, but didn’t have the strength to dive back in, not after the accident.
What accident? Why did she stop writing? Readers want to know – and telling them right away is too soon. Let them read on to find the answer.
Characters are well described with both action and dialogue, but sometimes narrative is also useful. Again, info-dump is a huge danger. Some of the tritest openings of a novel include the main character looking into a mirror and the describing what they see. Don’t do this! It’s so tired, and most agents and publishers will roll their eyes and toss the manuscript upon seeing it, unless there’s something so compelling about it that it rises above the cliché.
Lisa always hated her hair. It always managed to catch in her mouth when the wind blew and it never stayed styled once the humidity hit it. Still, she detested short hair styles on tall women. With her blond hair and tan skin, she’d look like a deformed mushroom with a bob cut.
Internal arguments and conflict is a great area of narrative. When a character needs to make a decision, but has to weigh the pros and cons of each option, unless she has someone she can hash the details out with, internal narrative is the best option.
Mattea really should go to work today, but her migraine pounded against her skull like a heavy-metal drummer in a crazed acid frenzy. However, she remembered her mortgage and her mother’s medical bills, and shoved herself out of the warm, comfortable bed, cringing as her bare feet touched the cold floor boards.
Action is the physical movements a character makes, whether it be picking up a cup of tea or punching another character between the legs. It creates the movement in a story. It makes the novel more than just a bunch of people standing around and talking. Even that can have action – hand gestures, angry expressions, hugs, etc. Action can bring a story to life, and lack of it can remove all vitality. You don’t need to blow up a planet or kill a person to have good action. But something has to happen.
Conflict drives story, and action is often a part of conflict, even in cerebral literary tales. Ulysses by James Joyce had the main character walking from place to place as his day went on.
Starting your story with action
Common advice is to start your story with action, in media res (in the middle of things). I find that’s true, but more accurate to say start your story with conflict. Some sort of tension or struggle that the main character has to solve. It doesn’t have to be a major event. It could be a husband and wife having an argument, or a child struggling with his math exam. It’s the reader’s first view into your world. Give them something to intrigue them.
Major events vs. common actions
- Major actions are plot twists, climaxes, battles, inciting events which drive up tension. They are often the result of conflict, decision, etc.
- Major events can be the call to action or inciting incident (the action that shoves the main character into the story)
- Mid-story actions might be the second and third major events (most stories have at least 2-3 of these through a full-sized novel)
- Climax – the final major event which wraps up the major story arc.
- Common actions include gestures, and everyday actions that add color to your characters and plot
- Physical actions – tiptoeing, fist fights, etc.
- Psychological actions – phone calls, innuendo, etc.
- Vary the pattern to keep interest
- Give characters common habits – biting nails, whistling, nervous giggling. This helps differentiate the characters and makes them more three-dimensional
- Intersperse the common actions within dialogue and narrative to pepper it, keep it interesting to the reader.
- Make your action match the environment. Glances between characters are more difficult in the dark, for instance.
Building up tension
Action can be used to build up tension in the story. Imagine someone in a dark house, searching each shadowed corner with a flashlight, looking for the source of the beating heart thundering in his ears. Nothing has really happened, except the character walking, searching, maybe shining his flashlight at a few spots, but the readers can tell this might result in a jump-scare at any moment, so the tension builds.
High Physical Action scenes
These can be very difficult to visualize, describe, and not every story needs them. However, a good action scene can liven up many stories. Block out each section of the scene with stick figures, like a storyboard. First A is here, and B is over there, but C is watching. Next, A has lunged for B while C tries to intervene. C trips, and B accidentally stabs him with the sword instead of A. Once you have an idea in your head of how it might look in a movie, then you can more easily describe it. Don’t describe EVERY detail, but salient items that help move the action along in the readers’ imagination.
Common wisdom has each of these elements around 1/3 of your manuscript. Obviously a high-action novel will skew, as will a very self-examining biopic. However, it’s a good rule of thumb to use.