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.