Dramatic fiction scenes have action. When in-scene writing is the most effective for the story moment, dialogue and action are often used together. Probably the most common action situations for writers for characters in a scene are eating, traveling as in a car or bus, or just meeting somewhere, situations which tend to be listless to inert. Yet, to keep the reader oriented as to what’s happening, and to augment the dialogue, the action in the scene has to be presented so the reader’s imagination is holding onto the scene visually and recording progressive–be it minimal or robust– action, and experience the imagery and action in fresh, unique, and significant ways, to support the meaning and story. Because in scenes where the dialogue is prominent and busy providing conflict, characterization, theme enhancement, etc., the supportative setting and the movement in the scene must be well written to contribute to a great story. The task is variable from story to story, and success requires practice.
For example, a man and woman are arguing about divorce at a restaurant. What possibly can a writer do to help the reader visualize setting and action while following the dialogue? They’re at a dining table sitting down facing each other!
What about: “I picked up my spoon.” OR “She picked up her spoon.”? The scene is already dead. This sort of writing is never useful for good fiction. Does it tell the reader anything about the character, the setting? Does it evoke imagery? What if, instead, it began: “In the direct chilling draft of the restaurant’s air conditioning vent, the cold metallic touch of my stainless steel soupspoon felt sinister . . . like a weapon.”?
Maybe: “He swallowed.”? Well, it does have some action that is internal but hardly stimulating to a reader’s imagination. It is too general for good writing. What if: “The half chewed steak stuck in his throat until he drank wine directly from the bottle he took from the silver ice bucket on the table.”? Not great standing alone, but there is action and imagery that might effectively support well-chosen dialogue.
So, for practice in writing support imagery and action in a scene that primarily depends on dialogue, your assignment is to write this scene from a narrator’s perspective without dialogue or internalization . . . no feelings or thoughts, or subjective opinions of narrator or character . . . just write images and action. The action should have an arc, including logical progression (placing ladder, climbing, a rung breaks, a fall, injury). When you’re satisfied your scene is fresh with specifics that stimulate images and story-action momentum, underline specific snippets of images and actions you might use in creating a scene using all the elements needed–dialogue, action, imagery, setting, internalization, stream of consciousness, etc.
Still a little confused? Look to these examples. The first will have subjective ideas in red indicating they shouldn’t be in the exercise where only objectivity is the goal.
The expensive yacht cut through the unforgiving sea and I was unsure what the Captain had in mind when he screamed for me to duck. The bow lurched to the left as the Captain spun the wheel to the right, obviously distraught about something I had no clue about. The boom swung over me as a crouched on deck, barely missing my head. I didn’t have much confidence in him anyway, and now I had none.
Second, a straightforward objective description of the happening.
The yacht tilted in a rough sea, the mainsail full of the wind on a close haul. Visibility was poor. A cargo shipped appeared. The Captain spun the wheel to the right. The bow lurched left. The boom swung across the deck. The Captain yelled. The passenger ducked. The boom cleared over him but hit the mate.
Third, the final passage with elements from all examples . . . a passage with mainly dialogue, with the chosen highlights the objective passage in green to show how the scene action is integrated. When the choice of effective detail is exact, the writer is carrying the reader through the scene with imagery and action and complimenting other techniques of scene development such as dialogue..
“How long you been sailing this thing?” I asked the captain. The forty-foot yacht was under full sail in a turbulent sea. Visibility was miserable.
“Long enough,” he yelled over the howl of the wind.
“Maybe we ought to lower the main,” the mate yelled in return.
That made sense to me, even with my limited knowledge. We were heeling to port so severely the spreaders on the main mast would at times touch the surface of the ocean.
“I’d want to go back,” I yelled.
“To late. Tides out.”
Through the mist and haze, a cargo ship loomed a few hundred yards from us.
“Goddamn,” cried the mate.
The Captain spun the wheel to the right to avoid a collision. The yacht pointed into the wind. The boom whipped across the deck. I ducked to keep from getting knocked into the sea.
“Hard-a-lee,” the Captain yelled too late to give an effective warning.
The boom hit the mate, frozen with fear . . .
Note how the dialogue and the action are moving . . . interwoven, and parallel. Both must be interesting and accurate. The exercise will help you maintain a reader’s interest in the story and will give you practice in techniques that will soon become incorporated in your writing, regardless of genre or style.
EXERCISE 1. Story one for objective rendering. Lots of action.
Here’s your first story. Remember, objective description that effectively provokes imagery and delivers scene action without subjective comment or ideation. And, of course, no dialogue.
An eight-year-old boy leaves his terminally ill mother and starving younger sister to ride his bike to a store or market where he steals food. The owner swings a broom knocking the boy off the bike. The boy sustains a serious head injury.
EXERCISE 2. Story two for objective rendering. Limited action (usually more difficult, but still scene momentum and setting should be carried through).
Husband and wife riding in a car. Mother-in-law in the back seat. The wife is pregnant with another man’s child, and she wants a divorce. The wife’s mother-in-law is popping pills. The husband is driving erratically. (Here there is little action for facile description. You can’t use the story line, the pregnancy etc. Find some action of one or two of the characters to follow through the scene. Taking the pills, trying to get comfortable, driving hazards, etc. Make the actions compliment and augment what the scene is about. Use your imagination.)
Summary: your goals.
1. Write the prescribed descriptive scene totally objectively to discover points of action and imagery that would be useful in a more expanded section with dialogue subjective story telling.
2. Identify and highlight–or underline–succinct details that might be useful to create images and impart the scene action for the reader.
Submit your work if you would like comments.
Excellent work. You’ve achieved success, which doesn’t come easily with this exercise.
Here is a reference you may find useful.
And thanks for the submission!
EXERCISE 1: A straightforward objective description of the happening.
The breeze blew through the window. The cover of the food ration book lying on the table flapped. The coupons pages were stamped. The boy looked around the room. His mother sat on the edge of the cot. A ceramic pot with a cracked lid at her feet. His sister was on her side on a mat. Her body has purple patches and scratches. Neither spoke. Both stared at the boy.
The boy belched, turned from his mother and sister, and put his hand on his stomach. Two minutes later, he zipped his jacket, put the ration book in his pocket, flipped a hand at his mother and sister and left the house.
He walked to the alley. He took the bike from the weeds and wheeled the racer to the sidewalk.
The boy put his feet on the pedals and steered towards the food distribution center.
He put the bike behind dumpster at the center, entered the building with a group of people, and went to the discounted food aisle. The lights were dim. The security camera is not blinking. He took fruit and vegetables. He reached for a package of donuts, but shook his head. The boy put the produce in his pocket and walked out the door and got his bike.
The custodian, emptying the trash, ran towards him. He yelled. The boy pedaled. The man pushed the broom handle between the spokes on the bike’s back wheel.
The bike stopped. The boy went over the handlebars. He screamed, fell. His head hit the pavement. The bike fell.
The boy lay still, blood around his head. The food ration booklet fluttered in the breeze.
Same scene: Create images and impart the scene action for the reader.
A chill breeze blew through the missing pane of glass in the window of the one-room flat. The grey, creased cover of the food ration book lying on the small, butcher-block table flapped like an injured dove with a broken wing.
Every coupon was red-stamped; food allotment used for the month. Victor shoved the ration book into the inner pocket sewn into the lining of his thread-bare denim jacket.
His mother raised her head, opened the cracked lid from the white ceramic chamber pot on the floor beside her cot, and vomited.
Victor wiped his mother’s mouth with a soiled rag.
Curled on a soiled straw mat the foot of the cot, his sister moaned and thrashed. Victor straightened her discolored, muslin gown. His eyes, angry and hard, looked at the purple bruises and long scratches covering her thin arms and legs.
Victor patted his jacket,slammed the door without saying a word.
Afternoon shadows danced along the crowded sidewalk. Victor hurried to the vacant lot behind the burned, blackened shell of the former police station.
Among the rusted, metallic carcasses of stripped-down automobiles, a jumble of desks and tables, file cabinets, and computer components was a bike–an English racer without fenders.
Victor steered past pedestrians the cracked sidewalk; women carrying bags and holding children’s hands, men wearing tunics and leggings. Two soldiers, smoking cigarettes and laughing loudly walked by. He shifted his eyes, turned his head, and his knees pumped faster. The chain clanked against the sprocket, and the bike wobbled.
Victor stowed the bike behind the huge, green dumpster at the food distribution center. He walked through the front doors behind a woman and four young children, and headed for the dimly lit deserted sale aisle at the back of the distribution center.
The security camera light was not blinking. Victor unbuttoned his jacket. His hands trembled. He shoved three large apples, two brown-spotted bananas and three wilted celery ribs into his inner jacket pocket.
Victor waited until the check-out lines were long and the cashiers busy scanning customer’s purchases and putting them into boxes and bags before slipping out the door.
He sprinted to the dumpster, swung a leg over the racer. Head lowered, Victor pedaled across the backlot.
A one-armed man, sweeping leaves and debris into a pile beside the loading dock, looked up. He rushed towards Victor swinging a long-handled push broom and jammed the wooden handle between the spokes of the back wheel.
The racer shuddered. Tires screeched.
Victor’s mouth opened but the young boy made no sound. His body flew over the handlebars and landed on the pavement. His head bounced once with a dull thud.
Victor trembled and lie still.
The food ration booklet fluttered in the warm, evening breeze. Just great.
EXERCISE 2. Story two for objective rendering. Limited action. No dialogue.
Conrad Lofts set the car’s GPS, buckled his seatbelt, and pressed the automatic garage door opener. His jaw tensed. Black clouds darkened the sky and a driving wind whipped an icy rain. Water had puddled and frozen on the uneven surface of the driveway.
Trudy, his wife, extended the passenger-side seatbelt and buckled the strap under her swollen baby-bump.
Conrad’s mother rested her cane, overstuffed handbag, and plastic water bottle on the floor of the backseat. Holding on to the arm rest, Gertrude Lofts hoisted herself into the vehicle and wiggled her ample rear into the seat and jerked the seatbelt strap several time.
Trudy tapped her husband’s shoulder. Conrad rolled his bloodshot eyes, clamored out of the driver’s seat, and poked his head into the back seat of the SUV.
His beefy hand pressed his mother against the seat. He retracted the seatbelt and jerked it to its full length, crossed it over his mother’s chest, and snapped the buckle. He slammed the car door, slid behind the . The SUV roared out of the garage.
Trudy took out her mobile phone and read a text message. She smiled and gazed out the window at the rain.
Conrad took his eyes from the road and glared at his wife. A vein in his temple throbbed. The SUV veered left.
Mrs. Lofts’ blue-veined hands clutched her throat. She screamed.
Trudy lowered her head and crossed her arms over her stomach.
Conrad gripped the steering wheel, corrected the skid; the SUV straightened.
Mrs. Lofts fanned her flushed face, unbuckled the seat belt and rummaged in her overstuffed bag. She took out a small blue bottle, and pushed at the white cap with her thumb. The cap wouldn’t open. Mrs. Lofts shook the bottle; the pills rattled like plastic beads in a maraca. (This is a perfect simile, well done. It does add to the description of the sound. But it points up how difficult the use of metaphor and simile can be for any story. In this exercise, you’ve used it well, a stylistic advantage. But consider that metaphor and simile may be, at times, more author-style necessary than story supportive. (This is an exercise, and this is a thought, not a critique) What if you used just: “. . . bottle; the pills rattled.”? “Rattled” is a perfect word. The reader interprets it easily (and with their own remembered experience of “rattling”). It stimulates the imagination of the reader immediately. When “like plastic beads in a maraca” is used, it adds more imagery–beads and maraca–and may make the reader wonder if he or she was wrong in however they assimilated the word “rattled.” If that happens for the reader, the simile is more authorial style than story supportive. (And it also stops the action established in the paragraph.) This may seem unimportant, but it deals directly with quality and effect of good in-scene writing, reader engagement, and good storytelling.
Trudy stretched her arm behind her seat and wiggled her fingers.
Mrs. Loft dropped the bottle of pills into her daughter-in-law’s hand.
Trudy twisted the cap several times.
Conrad took his right hand from the steering wheel and snatched the bottle. The white lid flipped opened. Little blue pills scattered.
The SUV spun out of control, careened across the median strip, and hit a speeding tractor trailer head on. Excellent.