Can your characters walk and chew gum at the same time in your novel? That’s more of a trick than you might imagine, and we’ll explore that question today.
Jim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
The problem I’m having with my writing is that I’m struggling to move my characters from one place to another.
I recently wrote a scene where two character’s were having a conversation whilst making their way through a town, but when I read over it it seemed as though they were teleporting through big lumps of their journey, when I felt a natural pause in the dialogue to describe their actions.
How’s best the keep them moving and talking without the two activities disrupting one another?
Randy sez: It’s a good idea to review the five main tools that you have at your disposal for writing scenes in your novel:
- Action: What your characters do.
- Dialogue: What they say.
- Interior Monologue: What they think.
- Interior Emotion: What they feel.
- Description: What they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.
Your goal as a novelist is to use these five tools to build a solid scene. We can’t cover these in immense detail here today. If you want a few hundred pages of detail, I’m going to have to refer you to the usual books on how to write fiction. Being a selfish guy, I’ll mention my own book, Writing Fiction For Dummies, focusing on chapters 2, 6, 10, and 15.
The key question here that Jim is asking is how to use Tool #2, Dialogue, without losing track of the location of the characters.
The answer is quite simple. Jim, you want to mix in the other tools with your Dialogue. Specifically, use some Action and some Description. Actions allow your characters to do things within the environment. Descriptions are things which your characters see or hear within the environment.
Remember one thing: You will rarely be using only one tool in a scene. A scene might be mostly Dialogue, but if it’s all Dialogue, then you have talking heads, and the scenery goes away. I’ll give an example of this below, but let me make a quick digression.
You have another tool at your disposal, if Action and Description aren’t enough — you can use Narrative Summary to describe the scenery and help you manage transitions that take place over an extended period of time.
You may be asking what’s the difference between Description and Narrative Summary. That’s a good question. The answer is that Description is direct and immediate sensory input. Here’s an example with some Description mixed in with Action and Dialogue:
Joe and Sally rounded the corner. A clown with enormous shoes was riding a unicycle and juggling two bowling balls. A grizzly bear was chained to the wall, pawing at the thick iron band around its neck. Two Martians were playing poker with an eager-faced boy who looked about ten years old.
“Oh my gosh!” Sally said, gawking at the Martians.
One of them grinned at her wickedly and winked all three of his eyes, one after another. They reminded Sally of a slot machine.
“Behave yourself, Ronald!” Joe said in a sharp voice.
The Martian sullenly returned to his cards.
Narrative Summary is a summary of what happens over time. Like this:
Joe warned Sally not to stare at the Martians and steered her down the block and around the corner and into a street full of Farmers Market booths. When he had her safely out of earshot, he explained that the Martians were telepathic over short distances and used their abilities to cheat at cards. The boy was Joe’s younger brother Seth, a cardsharp who had figured out how to double-cross the Martians by manipulating his own thoughts.
So Jim, if you want to show the scenery while your characters talk, just mix up your Dialogue with Action and Description, and if necessary throw in a bit of Narrative Summary. You can probably go easy on the Interior Monologue and Interior Emotion during these sections (since you generally don’t want to perfectly balance all your tools in every scene).
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 them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: One of the blogs I read every day is Jane Friedman’s blog, “There Are No Rules,” at Writer’s Digest. Today, she had an interview with Kiera Cass, a young self-published novelist who recently landed a three-book deal with HarperTeen. You can read it here at “From Self-Published Author to 3-Book Deal: The Story of Kiera Cass.”
Sheila Deeth says
I like those examples. Of course, now I’ll not be able to think about the difference without seeing three-eyed Martians, but I guess that’s kind of the point of a really good example. Thanks.
I’ve been reading (the Randy recommended) Sol Stein on Writing, and am just at the place where he discusses this very thing.
These are some excellent tool for helping jump that hurdle in writing. I tend to get stuck telling, not showing (oops!!). It’s a skill to learn to write in this way, I tend to have to go back and re-write at the moment. I’m hoping that with some more practice I’ll start thinking and typing like this too.