In my first critique group, one of our members, now a multi-published author, wrote some of the best dialogue I’ve read. Often I felt like a fly on the wall overhearing the conversation of her characters. But one of the first rejections she received came with this feedback: Your characters are nothing but talking heads.
What a wake-up call for all of us. Great internal monologue, scintillating dialogue, powerful motivation—all contribute to an engaging character, but in the end, characters must do something. They can’t just sit around conversing, even if what they say is intriguing. After all, readers need something to imagine.
Consequently, even in “quiet scenes” when the characters are primarily holding a conversation, they need to do something. A couple things are important to remember here. To be honest, I’ve learned most of these the hard way—by having them critiqued out of me.
1) Too much character action can be distracting. In other words, if the protagonist sits down, then delivers a line of dialogue, he probably shouldn’t stand up on his next line. Unless he has a reason.
2) Actions should be motivated. A character shouldn’t bite his nails if he doesn’t have a habit of biting his nails and isn’t nervous or bored or bothered by a hangnail. If he has no reason to bite his nails then he shouldn’t be doing it.
3) Actions should not be generic. Well, that’s too general. Sometimes a character has to laugh, look, stand, or turn. But not always. As often as possible, make actions unique.
4) Particular actions should reveal something about the character’s personality or background or temperament. Don’t waste actions. Put them to work. Yes, you want to give your readers something to imagine, but make it something worthwhile, not meaningless.
5) Actions should replace narrative rather than complementing it. Avoid explaining what the action is supposed to show.
- Example: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.
The phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger.
The temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.
Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.
To improve this action, the explanatory phrase should be omitted and the action strengthened.
Example: She danced into the room behind him.
The old adage actions speak louder than words, is especially true in fiction. Sure, we writers need to learn how to write brilliant dialogue, but we must never forget that above all else, characters act.