Combining Dialogue, Blocking, and Description

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I had several favorite episodes from season eight of writing excuses. They did an episode on writing pets, which made me realize none of my characters, not one, ever, has had a pet. No cats, no dogs, no horses. Hades had a dog once, but in the book, nope. No pets. I must work to fix this in the future. They did a great episode on retellings,   narrative rhythm, and chapter breakdowns that were super helpful to me.

But my favorite episode was the one on combining dialogue, blocking, and description. Integration is something that comes up in my writers group a LOT. You don’t want to have entire paragraphs of any one thing. Note I said paragraphs, plural. Occasionally having a paragraph or two of one thing makes it a focal point. It can be stylistic. But if you’re not doing it on purpose, description, thought, action, and dialogue should be interwoven. Dialogue requires natural beats. Places where the talking pauses and the reader gets to transition between who is saying what. Rather than just constantly writing he said she said, you can, and should, use description and action as those beats.

So

“Hi,” she said.

She leaned against the wooden table in a beam of sunlight doing something distracting.

You’d write something like,

“Hi.” Kelsey leaned against the wooden table in a beam of sunlight. More description or action.

There’s a balance to it. You don’t want your characters to get hyper.

“Hi!” Kelsey leaned against the table.”

“Hey.” I rocked back and forth on my feet.

“How are you?” Kelsey drummed her nails on the table.

“Great.” I slid into my seat. “You?”

You get the idea.

See how I use this technique in my work:

Poseidon cleared his throat. “As much as I’m sure you’d love to just lay here and ignore me the entire night, we need to talk.”

“Fine.” I craned my neck, squinting against the sunlight that blazed around the Poseidon-shaped silhouette. Motioning to the lounge chair beside me, I tried to pretend I felt safe. That I didn’t still remember the way he’d crushed me to him, his tongue snaking down my throat. After all, I had the upper hand now. Time to act like it. “Did you guys find Narcissus?”

The sea god nodded. “We’re watching him from a distance for now, hoping he’ll lead us to Jason. I maintain it would be better to question him, but . . .”

“You were overruled,” I guessed.

“Athena agrees with Persephone.” When Poseidon crossed his arms, sunlight spilled over his shoulders. “There’s more to gain through observation than interrogation. Plus, if he were to escape, it would lend more credibility to Tantalus’s story, and that could hurt your cover.”

“Have you guys figured out how Tantalus escaped from the Underworld in the first place?” The last I’d seen of the demigod, he was locked in one of his own cages with Ares’s spear in his chest, waiting for Persephone or one of the others to come lift his immortality curse. I’d been assured the demigod was now firmly dead and wasn’t going anywhere outside of his own special hell.

Integration is key. Thoughts, backstory, action, description, dialogue. Anything you could spend entire pages on will probably read a lot smoother if it’s all interwoven. Especially description. In writers group a question I ask people to consider is if you randomly look at 3-5 (sequential) paragraphs of dialogue, could your characters be on the moon. If the answer is yes, your characters need to interact with their environment. This is also called talking head syndrome.

And it’s important not just to have multiple elements in a paragraph, but to have them serving different functions. You can say “she said, angrily.” Or you can have her interact with the environment in a  way that shows she’s angry.

Brandon Sanderson took my integration spiel and did one better in this concept that I absolutely love, called the Pyramid of Abstraction.

The bottom of the pyramid, the scene setting, is the concrete foundation. The layers atop it can be more and more abstract, like tagless dialog without concrete descriptions, if that original foundation is firm enough.

You should listen to the episode, it really was fantastic.

 

 

 

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