More Than Mere Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and you want your dialogue to be more than mere dialogue. You want actions. You want thoughts. You want the scene to feel natural. How do you do that?

Andrew posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been writing for a few months, and I am still in the beginning stages of my hobby. I try to integrate actions, gestures, and thoughts with my dialogue, but I am having a great deal of difficulty. I normally have to look at Books I read and copy ideas from there. Is there an easy way to find list of different ideas or better yet examples of this kind of information? If I actually knew the technical term for what I was asking for it would be a big help too. Thanks!

Randy sez: Good question, Andrew. It’s not a bad idea to read books and see how they’ve done it. That’s a great way to learn things, because it’s fun to read fiction. What I’ll do here is to summarize all the core ideas for showing your story. Take these ideas and see how your favorite authors put them into practice.

Let’s remember what our goal is in writing fiction: We want to create a movie in our reader’s head. We want to “show” the reader our story, not merely “tell” the story.

That wasn’t the goal of writers 150 years ago. But we’re competing with movies, so that’s our goal.

First, you asked for the right terminology. Here are the terms I use, which are fairly standard. You have five tools for “showing” your reader your story:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Sensory Description

Yes, there are other tools you can use, such as Narrative Summary or Exposition. There’s a place for these in every novel, but these are called “telling” your story, rather than “showing” your story, and generally it’s a good idea to use “showing” as much as possible—for all the exciting stuff. You can use “telling” for the boring things that have to be told, but need to be told efficiently.

I could write fifty pages on exactly how you use Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, Interior Emotion, and Sensory Description in a novel. In fact, I have written  just about that many pages already in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. It would be a stretch to put that much detail in this blog post. But here are a few guidelines that will help you get rolling:

  • Each scene can have as many characters as you want, but your scene will typically happen in one place and cover just a short period of time.
  • In every scene, there is one character that’s special—you are going to take the reader inside that character’s skin. This character is called the Point of View character, often abbreviated POV character. Your goal is to show only what the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, or think. You are trying to create the illusion that your reader is your POV character.
  • You can switch POV characters when you switch to a new scene, or you can keep the same POV character if you like. It’s up to you. But don’t change POV characters inside the same scene.
  • Each paragraph should focus either on one character or on the environment.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the POV character, then you can show that character’s Actions, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, and Interior Emotion. You can use as many or as few of these tools as you like in the paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on some other character, then you can show that character’s Actions and Dialogue and possibly some Sensory Description. But you should only show things that your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the environment, then you can show Action and Sensory Description of the environment. Again, only show the things your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If you need a paragraph or two of Narrative Summary or Exposition, put them in, but make them as interesting as you can, because they’re interrupting the movie in your reader’s head.

These are not “Rules.” There aren’t any Rules in fiction. These are rules of thumb that guide you. You can violate any of them that you want, as long as you think it makes the story better. Usually, violating these rules of thumb makes the story worse. Part of the art of fiction is learning when to use the rules of thumb and when to break them.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

3 Comments

  1. Sylvia A. Nash February 26, 2016 at 9:04 am #

    Randy, this is one of the best summaries on this topic I believe I’ve ever read. I like it! 🙂

  2. Ann Marks May 23, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    Excellent information in an easy to read and understand format. Thank you!

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