Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Tip of the Week - Using Action in Dialogue by Joselyn Vaughn

My first drafts of scenes with dialogue are often disembodied monotone chanting where it’s difficult to discern who is talking, how many people are in the room or on the phone, and what they are all doing while they are conversing. It’s all clear in my head until I read it the next day.

The second draft improves enough that I can tell who is talking and how many people are in the room. However, these people do an inordinate amount of standing, sitting, leaning, nodding, turning and smiling. Someday I hope to write an entire novel where no one turns or nods unless absolutely necessary. Right now it seems like an incredible feat, but I think it’s possible. So while the scene has filled out with another layer, the actions are basic and weak.

By my third draft, the action starts to tell a story of its own. The characters fuss with their napkins, knotting them, folding them, twisting them around their fingers as they reveal their secrets. In CEOs Don’t Cry, Mark spilled drywall mud, scooped it back into his bucket and mashed it down during a conversation with his friend Bryce. His actions reflect his discomfort with the topic of conversation.

You can use action in your dialogue for more than one purpose. The first way to use actions to replace dialogue tags. The dreaded ‘he said’, ‘she said’s. Not that those are awful, but people usually skip reading them anyway. They pick up the name of who is talking and continue reading. If people aren’t going to read those words, why have them in your novel? We want the reader to be so enamored with our story that they hang on every word. Replace the ‘said’ with an action and your reader’s eyes won’t jump to the next line.

Ex) “I can’t eat another bite,” Carla said.

Replace with: “I can’t eat another bite.” Carla tossed her napkin on her plate and pushed the plate forward.

Drop the said and you have a more active verb construction. Carla tossed… And the action enforces what Carla is saying. We know she isn’t lying about being able to eat another bite.

The other thing you can do with action is to betray the character’s true thoughts. Their actions can show their anxiety even when their words profess calmness.

Ex) “Everything is fine.” Carla twisted the corner of her napkin until the end tore in linty clumps and littered her wool suit.

We know that when a woman says something is fine, it generally isn’t, but Carla’s actions also show that. Would she be ripping the napkin apart if she was calm and prepared for whatever came next? Probably not. Personally, I’d have that napkin shredded into dust if I was entering an anxiety-filled situation.

You can use the actions to show a character that appears ready to take on the world is actually quaking in their sandals.

These techniques aren’t the only ones you can use to develop scenes of dialogue, but you can use them to enhance a scene as you revise.

Bio: Joselyn Vaughn lives in the Great Lakes State with her adoring husband, the world's most inventive toddlers and the laziest beagles.  She believes there is nothing better than a warm hug, a good romance novel and chocolate.  When not changing diapers or removing a toddler from a precarious situation, Joselyn enjoys sewing, running, shopping at thrift stores and reading books longer than thirty pages.

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Maryann Miller said...

Thanks so much for the great tips. I have never thought about trying to remove all use of "saids" when writing dialogue, but I have tried to be more conscious of when I can effectively replace those tags with action. Good point, too, about how the action can underscore the dialogue.

Cheryl said...

You should teach a workshop (hint)
Great tips.

Joselyn Vaughn said...

Thanks Maryann and Cheryl.

Cheryl - maybe I can put something together in the spring. Once things settle down around here. haha.

Laurean Brooks said...

Anne, thank you for hosting Joselyn. Wonderful tips.

I was once guilty of the "He said, She saids." I have to stop and think how to describe what the character is feeling.

But "actions speak louder than words." "Show, don't tell."

I'm still working on new ways to show. I use too many creased eyebrows, and twisting a lock of hair.

Like Maryann said, I try to be more conscious of those tags.

Great information, Joselyn. Thank you for posting this.

Miss Mae said...

Ha ha, love your bio! I gotta have that chocolate fix too, and how super to have the laziest beagles. :)

Great the way you mix the action with your dialogue. Thanks for all the tips!

Sherry Gloag said...

Great post. I also have problems with 'said', I reckon it will be a great exercise to follow these tips and then get them into my wip.
thanks for sharing.

Joselyn Vaughn said...

Laurean - I do the same things! My characters turn, nod and smile a lot. I've working hard not to lean on those and use more descriptive actions.

Miss Mae - The beagles get really excited about walks, then realize that it is work and want to go home.

Thanks for stopping by!

Celia Yeary said...

ANNE--a good reminder. I think this is one of the more difficult parts of writing. Sometimes,in re-reading a WIP, I have to add action phrases such as you describe. And you are so right--it makes the ms so much better. Thanks--Celia

Anne Patrick said...

Thank you everyone for dropping by. And than you, Joselyn for your wonderful tips!

Diane Craver said...

Thanks for the great tips when writing dialogue - great reminder for me.