On January 4th, 2010, Inkquisitive asked, “...do you have any help for those of us who seem to live in Dialogue Land? I know you have touched on this a little before, but do you have any suggestions on how to convert a conversation-heavy scene into more action? My book is starting to look like a play (which I do not want) with bits of narrative strewn among a majority of conversation. Thanks.
Here are some suggestions for getting from Dialogue Land into Action Land.
Suppose your main character’s objective is to restore a friendship. In real life and fiction that’s usually achieved with words, but this time your job is to get there with minimal dialogue. Consider how your main character, James, can win back Hanna’s trust with few words, and not a letter either. You don’t have to retreat into wordlessness, however. James can be thinking like crazy. In addition to thinking, what can he do?
Or, write a story with a main character who is not a talker. She may not even be much of a verbal thinker. She expresses herself by action. Make her mad at someone. How does she deal with her anger without talking or screaming or explaining her feelings? Bring in more characters and stick mainly to action.
Silence can pack a huge emotional wallop. In life and in fiction when one person stops talking to another, you have explosive tension. Friends doing something together without a word – walking in the woods, cooking, sitting by a fire – can convey companionship and peace. Setting can help, and so can body language. Two people slumped in chairs in a hospital lounge suggest grief or hopelessness.
Think of a retreat in which the participants have vowed silence. In spite of the silence, however, relationships are formed, feelings conveyed. Try writing about a main character at a silent weekend retreat. Make her want something that is counter to the intentions of the retreat. How does she go about getting what she wants? One way to approach this might be through humor.
Maybe this can’t be done entirely without words, but what fun it would be to write – or read – a mystery set in a place of silence.
When you find yourself locked in dialogue, think of it as being stuck on the phone. Your cousin has called. You love him, but he’s a chatterbox, and after a while you remember that you’ve eaten nothing for eight hours or a light bulb needs changing or you promised to mow the lawn, so you look for a friendly, unhurtful way to get off the phone. Try the same technique in Dialogue Land. Think of a reason for one of your characters to end the conversation. Break everybody up and move the story to a different location. Make the next scene a solo one. Your main character is alone. He has no one to talk to. What does he do?
Radical cutting also may help. Do all these words need to be said? Can some just be eliminated? Suppose your characters are talking about an event that they all witnessed. Try showing the event. Your characters can have thoughts about it, but let the action unfold as it happens. If one of the characters missed the occurrence, you can just say in narration that he was told.
I have not done this recently, but it might be a good idea: Watch an old silent movie. In silent movies there were occasional speech lines shown on the screen, but almost everything was accomplished without them. Observe how it was done.
Look through picture books. Granted, these are simple stories, but they might be useful anyway. See what the images convey, because you can write in images. You can write about facial expressions and reduce the necessity of having someone say what he’s feeling.
Often the motivation for dialogue is to develop character, and dialogue is wonderful for that, but think how your characters can reveal themselves without words. We learn a lot about Kirby if he combs his hair in a mirror while Kathleen weeps on the sofa a yard away.
I’ve saved the most obvious for last, because it is obvious. Write an action story: a chase, an escape, a natural disaster. These can be dialogue heavy too, but don’t let yours be. When your characters start getting chatty, make the roof cave in or the bad guys show up. Tie your characters up with tape across their mouths.
Prompts are scattered through this post. Here they are, collected:
• Restore a friendship in a scene. No more than ten words may be spoken.
• Write a story about a main character who isn’t a talker and isn’t a verbal thinker either. You may want to get her mad at someone. Or do something else with her.
• Set a story at a silent retreat. Your main character wants something and it isn’t silence or spiritual growth. What happens?
• Watch a silent movie (I love Buster Keaton) or read a bunch of picture books. Use one of them as the basis of a story with little dialogue.
• Write an action story about a chase or an escape or a natural disaster. Or all three! When any of your characters speak, don’t let the speech go beyond a single line.
Have fun and save what you write.