The Balancing Act


In nearly all stories, regardless of genre—suspense, romance, literary, mainstream, science fiction, whatever—the essential conflict is introduced, dealt with, and resolved by means of a series of events conveyed through action, dialogue, and narrative. These events can grip your reader, transport her into another world, propel her on an intense and unforgettable emotional journey…

Or not. For the events in your story to engage your reader on that kind of visceral level, she needs to be so immersed in your fictional universe that she almost forgets she’s reading a book. You want her to live the story as she turns the pages. Those are the books that keep readers up all night and send them rushing back to the bookstore for more titles by you.

A caveat: Obviously, there’s no magic bullet for creating this kind of fiction. As I so often say, writing is an art, not a science. Every author has his or her own style, and every novel has its own unique chemistry. Advice on how to write great, absorbing novels always needs to be taken with a grain of salt, because what works for most stories most of the time won’t necessarily serve the story you’re writing. Nevertheless, I’m going to offer some guidelines for writing action, dialogue, and narrative that, more often than not, will strengthen a work of fiction.

Action. Your characters do stuff that moves your story forward. How you express what they do—the language you use to describe it—can make the difference between a story that feels as if it’s happening to your reader and a story she has to force herself to finish. The most important concept to bear in mind when writing about what people do is to keep it, for the most part, active, not passive.

With active language, someone is doing something. With passive language, something is happening, and although we may realize intellectually that someone is doing it, it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it doesn’t really feel as if it’s being done by anyone. The character taking the action feels oddly removed from it, which has the effect making him appear reactive rather than active, and flat rather than three-dimensional.

Passive: Our house was burned down by my son.
Active: My son burned down our house.

Passive: She was lifted in his arms and carried to the bed.
Active: He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.

It’s best to strive for active language even when the action isn’t being taken by a particular character;

Passive: The platoon was ravaged by gunfire.
Active: Gunfire ravaged the platoon.

The past progressive tense (“Thus-and-such was happening”) should be reserved for occasions when it’s important to indicate ongoing action. “I turned around and he was slitting the cop’s throat” isn’t the same as, “I turned around and he slit the cop’s throat.”

The past perfect (“Thus-and-such had happened”) is useful for illustrating a jump backward in time, but use it judiciously or it could impart a passive tone.

Dialogue. Dialogue, when it’s done well, can really enhance the entertainment value of a work of fiction. When considering whether to buy a particular novel, bookstore customers will often flip through the pages to gauge the proportion of dialogue to narrative. Some genres, like mystery and romance, are dialogue-intensive, others less so. But even if your characters don’t have a lot to say, what they do say should feel as natural as possible.

“Natural” is not necessarily synonymous with “realistic,” not entirely so, anyway. Real dialogue is full of “uh’s” and “um’s.” Conversations meander off-topic, they can be unduly long-winded, and they’re not always terribly entertaining. Every conversation in your story should serve a purpose and entertain, while sounding as natural as possible. (For examples of great natural dialogue, read anything by Elmore Leonard.)

Listen to your characters talk and transcribe their conversations without doing a lot of editing, at least in the first draft. And for heaven’s sake, don’t apply the rules of good grammar to your characters’ dialogue unless they would really speak that way. I wrote a novel in which an uneducated 19th century Irish-born servant said, “Me and my cousin Liam sneaked into the theater.” My publisher’s well-meaning copy-editor corrected it to “My cousin Liam and I…” Needless to say, I corrected it right back.

Each character’s way of speaking should reveal something about him and make him sound distinct from other characters. People’s personalities come out in their speech, in what types of epithets they use, how they show anger and happiness, how complex their sentences are, how witty or hard-nosed or shy or pompous or whatever they are. The better you know your characters, the more in keeping with their personalities their dialogue will be.

By all means use dialogue to convey information (see my “Show, Don’t Tell” harangue below), but beware the infamous As you know, Bob syndrome: “As you know, Bob, our parents died when we were both young. You quite school and worked two jobs so I could go to college. I graduated with honors and went on to law school…” Naturally, you want to salt information into your dialogue with as subtle a hand as possible.

One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction, and one that marks the writer in my eyes as something of an amateur (yes, I know that sounds snooty and I don’t care), is the dreaded Funky Speech Tag. Oh. My. God. How I hate them:

“Marla, you vixen,” he growled seductively (and don’t get me started on unnecessary adverbs) as they fell together onto the sun-dappled grass. “I must have you.”

“Raoul!” she gasped as her gown was torn from her nubile body. “Here? Now?”

“I can’t wait!” he ejaculated. (That was uncalled for. Sorry.)

And yes, “her gown was torn” is totally passive. You get a gold star for noticing that.

The moral of the story: When you actually need a speech tag (you can dispense with them if it won’t cause confusion) use the wonderful, all-purpose, all-but-invisible “said” about 80-90% of the time, with “asked” and non-hilarious descriptive speech tags taking up the slack. Use the latter only when they leap out of your fingertips and onto the computer screen, demanding to be deployed.

One thing that bugs me about certain romance novels is when the hero’s dialogue sounds pretty much like the heroine’s. In general (of course there are exceptions) men and women speak differently. Men tend to speak in shorter, more straightforward sentences. They are less likely than women to end sentences with interrogatories such as, “Isn’t it?” or “Don’t you think?” and also less likely to preface their speech with a disclaimer like, “I’m not sure, but…” For the most part, they eschew the kind of euphemistic, go-along-to-get-along language that’s drummed into girls from a young age—”I’m not really pleased about that”—for more direct statements: “That sucks.” You’re also less liable to hear the more expressive adjectives and descriptions—”fabulous, gorgeous, magenta”—from the mouth of a man. Men often use conversations to relay information, solve problems, or compete with each other, rather than for entertainment or emotional support, as is the case with women. Again, these are generalizations. People talk the way they talk, and it’s theoretically possible that a man might say, “I’m not sure, but don’t you think I should really not be pleased with this magenta tie?”

I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry has bought the expensive new suede jacket with the pink-striped lining. George says, “Jerry, I must tell you—and I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality—that jacket is fabulous.”

Narrative. Say it with me, now: “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” Yes, that ubiquitous old saw. You hear as nauseam it in every writing class you take, because it really is an incredibly important concept. As a rule of thumb (see the caveat above), the most successful fiction concentrates on action and dialogue. Narrative of all kinds—exposition (info-dumping), description, and backstory—is usually most effective when it’s kept relatively minimal. Much of this material can, in fact, be incorporated with a light hand into the action and dialogue, where it will be digested by the reader without her being too consciously aware of it—and thus getting yanked out of the story.

A preponderance of narrative can make your story feel sluggish, wordy, and remote, but the most important reason to focus on action and dialogue is that it forces the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks. Once again for my perennial refrain: Show-Don’t-Tell writing is the most powerful because it allows your reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions based on the evidence at hand. Ideas that the human mind creates for itself are much more powerful and affecting than ideas that are spoon-fed to a person.

That said, there are novelists who are incredibly gifted at description and the like, and can keep their readers enthralled through pages and pages of brilliant non-active prose. I envy these writers more than I can say, and if you’re one of them, and you feel that your work is best served by including epic chunks of exposition, go for it!

Chances are, though, that your story, like most, will benefit from an emphasis on showing rather than telling—editing down the non-active bits and conveying that information through what your characters are doing and saying. If this is a difficult principle for you to put into practice, consider how it’s done in cinema. In a movie, unless there’s voice-over narration, every emotional nuance and critical piece of information is communicated to the audience through action and dialogue. If you’re having trouble whittling down the narrative in a particular scene, try rewriting that scene as a screenplay. It’s a useful exercise that can be quite enlightening!

Louisa Burton
July 2010

“FictionCraft” © 2010 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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