Limyaael's Rants

Balancing Dialogue, Description, and Action

Written on 2004-11-27; Read the original post on LiveJournal

I should mention that I’m definitely writing about the balance in novel-length fantasy works here, rather than in short stories.

1) Keep an eye on the pages before you. If you’ve had a passage of description that goes on for five pages, it might be a good idea to start a conversation, or shatter that description with action. It works to counter the deadening effect that too much of one thing can have, and if the audience has been lulled by the description, which is often the effect, then a sudden explosion of danger will be all the more effective.

One way fantasy authors tend to get caught up in writing too much of one thing is when they’re talking about a journey through the wilderness. They talk about the trees, they talk about the hills the horses jog up and down, they talk about the travelers stopping to fill their water jugs, they talk about them picking a campsite, they talk about them lying down to sleep, and then maybe the story goes into a dream description. On and on and on, and the reader starts to forget the sounds of the characters’ voices, or that the characters might have enemies on their tail. Sometimes the author does too, and the fantasy world becomes one long tapestry of trees and watering holes and hills and zzzzz.

It can be the same way with a battle. The author goes on killing and killing and killing and, oh, there’s someone else dead over there, and then a minor character dies and there’s angst, but don’t worry, we won’t have time for it, because we have to go witness another murder, and then the outnumbered, worn, hungry, thirsty army has to band together and defeat the Dark Lord’s army (which battle has no suspense, because when an army is outnumbered and exhausted is when you know they’re going to win). By the time I get to the end of that, if the author doesn’t start describing something else, I can feel numb. The author has to remember that she might take days to write the battle and have some time to recover in between, but readers don’t have that luxury.

And, finally, conversation. You’ve heard me talk about that horrible scene where the Wise Old Mentor tells the Young Dunderheaded Hero what’s what before, but that belongs here. So does the twenty-page “storytelling” session that’s just an excuse to infodump, and the romantic conversation that goes on for fifteen pages, and the ten-page conversation about politics. Break it, vary it, alter it. If you’ve had nothing but conversation for a solid chapter, but you really need to keep the characters talking in the next chapter, stir some other parts of the story in there. Perhaps the characters walk into a room that needs to be described, perhaps they remember (if there’s no way they can get into) an attack, perhaps one of them makes a dramatic revelation and the tension in the room rises heart-stoppingly. The problem with long conversation scenes is not that they’re bad or boring by nature. It’s that, once within them, the fantasy author forgets about making the characters into anything more than talking heads.

Okay, so you want to vary it now. How do you do that?

2) Remember these are people doing the describing, acting, or talking. Let the author get into a rut, and by gods, the characters do the same thing. Suddenly, there’s a page where I don’t get any reminder of the viewpoint character whose head I’m sharing (see point 3, too). There’s a page of battle that could be any character fighting, not Della the reformed scullery maid. There’s an overheard conversation where the eavesdropping character doesn’t have a thought in her pretty little head; she’s just there to convey the words of the other characters to the reader’s ear.

Don’t treat your characters like this. I’m against including any viewpoint character merely to be “a fly on the wall” for a large part of the story. One scene, yes, but otherwise the author becomes lazy and doesn’t bother to develop the characters. She can just jump into the next conveniently placed person for the next scene. Why should she bother?

The best way to remind your audience that they’re seeing everything through a particular character’s eyes and ears is to combine the convenience of who can overhear or witness a particular thing with a character who has some stake in what’s happening. I would expect a character eavesdropping on a conversation about her own future to flinch, get angry, make sarcastic commentary in her head, and possibly show the speakers that she’s listening far more than a character listening to a conversation about someone whom she doesn’t know. Too often, a fantasy author depends on the (likely epic) scope of her story to convey information that will make sense to the reader, because she knows what happened a hundred miles away or who these mysterious speakers are referring to, but no sense to the characters in question. Bad, bad, bad author. Make the scenes the characters participate in important to them—

And voila, you have your way to vary the makeup of the scene. A character who notices the passage of a certain knight on the field above all others, because she’s in love with him, will view a battle scene much differently than a general on the hill commanding her troops. You might have to choose one or the other of them depending on the needs of the story, but they shouldn’t be written in exactly the same way.

3) The viewpoint structure you choose will change the balance between the parts of the story. I am a fan of multiple third-person-limited viewpoint characters, where the author stays inside one character’s head for the duration of the scene or the chapter, and doesn’t tell things that the character couldn’t possibly know. I’ve seen omniscient used very clumsily (‘lo again, Robert Jordan, fancy meeting you here), and also transitions between characters within a single scene. Authors can do them gracefully, but it takes practice, not the effortless jumping into them that authors seem to think they can make.

With a third-person limited character, the author’s intent with that part of the story has to change, at least in part, to conform to the character in question. Would your scout who can see very well at a distance, but is near-sighed, really notice the detail of every flower along the way? Your heroine who is far more concerned with her own appearance than anyone else’s would notice the mud that splashed on the corner of her dress, but perhaps not the telltale signs of a recent battle, particularly if she’s never fought before. Your scholar might be perfectly comfortable conducting a conversation for pages, but you should remember that the other characters might not be. Every sentence of writing from a third-person-limited POV is a compromise, a balancing act, between the character, the needs of the story, the presence of other characters—who might get impatient and interrupt your long-winded protagonist, or charge into the middle of a riot without waiting to see who caused it—and the reader. It can actually be the best viewpoint structure for a writer to work with who’s having trouble breaking up her scenes, because these considerations force her to break it up.

Despite its obvious limitations (which I think people are quicker to take note of than its strengths), first-person-viewpoint is the one that will let you get away with a whole hell of a lot. Extensive descriptions seem to slide past more easily, because of the illusion of intimacy that the reader builds with the “I” character. Authors include character reactions to conversations and daring escapes and rescues and battles almost automatically, since “I” feels the anger, pride, pain, joy, exhilaration, and fear right along with whatever she’s saying or doing or listening to. There’s still some problems, because some authors tend to treat first-person like omniscient and dump in information from absolutely everywhere, but it can be a very good choice when you want extensive and detailed everything, as long as you’re mindful of what this character would have a reason to note and not note.

4) Use dialogue scenes to develop characters’ different “voices.” This is a neglected thing, compared to ladling information into the story, in most fantasies. And by “voices,” I don’t mean “the different cute accents each character has.” If you can do accents well, then do them, and if you can’t, don’t. But don’t subject the reading public to a whole bunch of, “Och, ye ken the wee lassie?” characters who don’t sound any different from each other.

Nor do I necessarily mean the metaphors different characters use. Perhaps one character says “like a horse to market” all the time, and another refers to the sea constantly. That can be a good way to distinguish them—provided that it doesn’t become all they are, as has a habit of happening. Authors introduce a quirk, and it stays a quirk, not a trait. Build on the metaphors, and include them in the general whole weave of the character’s personality.

There are many, many subtler ways that characters speak than accents or metaphors, including but not limited to:

And so on.

5) Allow pauses for rest after extremely extensive, high-pitched scenes. There’s a good reason that a climax is traditionally followed by a denouement. The audience, and the characters, needs time to come down from the heights and walk on the ground again. If the final confrontation occurred, the character needs time to have his reaction, but so does the reader.

The means of the recovery can vary, certainly. Perhaps your character just isn’t the kind to sit around and introspectively munch over all that’s happened to him. (I wrote a character a few months ago who wasn’t, which shocked the hell out of me and made some parts of the book more awkward than they should have been, since I’m so used to self-knowing, very perceptive characters). In that case, use an extensive scene of another kind. It might be a long descriptive one, such as of the Hobbits on their journey home that Tolkien uses. It might be a scene of “lesser” action, like a coronation following a battle. It might be that an introspective secondary character is the one who handles the business of thinking, realizing the weight, and straightening himself for the next burden, particularly if this high-pitched scene occurs in the middle of the book, and the main protagonist is someone who ignores Socrates and thinks the unexamined life is the best one to live. Sometimes we can’t tell our own stories, which is another good reason for multiple viewpoint characters.

When thinking about how long a recovery period you need, fit it into several contexts: the length of the high-pitched scene, the length of the book, the length of the series if it comes to that, and the length of any natural breaks (such as scene or chapter). Also, think about how long it will take these particular characters to draw their breaths before the next hurdle you’re going to ask them to jump. There’s a reason that the climaxes of third books of trilogies are often big and stately, while those of beginning books may be smaller. The characters have come to the end of their journey, literally or metaphorically, and can start to rest. Other times, even after a battle, they may only have to draw their breaths for a short scene, because that’s the kind of people they are. Glen Cook’s Black Company characters, hardened mercenaries who know their own lack of morals very well, are like that, and the end of The White Rose is sparse and stark after the gignormous battle.

6) Don’t strangle everything under the weight of an outline. An outline can be of use to help you in smaller balancing acts, but I distrust it for this one, and I don’t say that just because I write without one. Try to say, “Okay, in Chapter 42 I’ll have to have two conversations, because I have a battle right before and right after,” and you’re winding yourself into a net. What if the battle takes longer than you planned? What if one of the conversations just isn’t needed? What if Chapter 42 is meant to be a small pause before the second battle in Chapter 43, because Chapter 41 and Chapter 43 are really continuations of each other, and with both conversations included, ends up growing too long?

When they’re joined all together, to make a book or a trilogy or a longer series than that (please decide if it has to be), the balance often changes. Things that looked great in outline have to be sacrificed. Chapters that seemed necessary fade or vanish. Small plot elements, or characters you only intended to use once and then kill off, show up and take over the book. That’s a great sign. Stories that change are living things. They shouldn’t be put on a Procrustean bed and lopped off or stretched to fit the author’s original vision unless that vision is actually better than what’s grown.

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