Description, Dialogue, & Action
This article was last updated December 12th, 2008. Thanks to everyone who provided suggestions!
So, you’ve got the perfect story: a great character, your basic plot, a world, and hey—maybe you’ve even sketched out a few scenes. But there’s just a few things missing—maybe the dialogue just doesn’t seem to work, or your action scenes don’t seem realistic. So for all of you out there who just need a few quick pointers, I hope this helps.
When having trouble writing description, try blocking out the scene in very general terms. What are you trying to convey? Is it hot? How many people are there? What kind of floor are your characters standing on? You don’t need to get into the really fine details, but your audience is going to want a mental picture. I usually keep in mind three main characteristics: the atmosphere, the general placement of objects or people, and either what the main character is doing or what he or she looks like.
The town was bright and bustling; nary a breeze ran through the crowded city streets. The sweltering midday sun was as hot as midsummer, though the seasons still claimed the day as spring. The abundant light flashed and reflected off metal armor and shining trinkets in the various stalls of Travelers’ Square. A young guard wiped his forehead with the back of his tanned hand at his post in the corner of the Square as he surveyed the ever-changing scene. Merchants bartered and haggled, shouting across the busy cobblestones as they advertised their wares. A few roadside performers practiced their acts, gaining the attention and coin of several passersby with their prowess. Old Alchnet the wizard scowled as he caught the guard’s stare, and the youth quickly redirected his gaze. He looked down, carefully refastening the cuff on the stiffened jacket of his cobalt uniform.
Atmosphere: Hot & crowded—not a very personal or quiet place.
Placement of objects/ people: There are stalls to either side of the road, backed by merchants, and travelers line the cobblestones.
Main Character: A young guard on duty, wearing a blue uniform.
Words like ‘sweltering midday sun’ give both the time of day and the temperature—effective in concisely describing the scene and giving the reader a feel of the heat before the scene has even truly begun. The guard’s tanned hand shows that this kind of day isn’t so unusual—Traveler’s Square is a temperate place. The roadside performers, merchants, and the stalls themselves all add a certain sense of reality, in addition to making the Square seem crowded.
Granted, this example would be best used for an introduction to a chapter or story—it sets the scene with minute details, but very little action takes place. Scenes like this one are good to introduce new settings, but can be easily overused, making the story long and drawn out.
Descriptions don’t have to be long. In fact, most character descriptions won’t be. A sentence or two is enough to give a basic understanding of a character, which can be built upon later—in the meantime, the action can continue. (Some character descriptions take place during an action scene already in motion. See Erin M. Evans’ “The Deception of Description” for more on writing in-action descriptions of characters.) For quick character descriptions, focus on the most obvious attributes. If the character towers over everyone in the room and has ornate tattoos all across his bald head, don’t tell us about his dainty nose. Remember: not everyone is perfect. Some characters should have physical flaws—don’t forget to describe them.
Lastly, add little details about the nonentities—that is, the characters who don’t particularly have a big part—or give more depth to your character by referencing their past. Both give a sense to the reader that this world isn’t being created—it’s being viewed. Details make the story. Use your imagination!
Many of the steps for good dialogue are similar to those for a good description. Dialogue is a great opportunity to sneak in details about the characters—what they’re wearing, their personalities, or their current mood. The tone of a voice, or the action of a character speaking, expresses a lot to the reader. In this first example, notice Alchnet’s temperament—he’s just been robbed, and he isn’t too happy with the guards who are on duty, Keorni and Marik.
“If I may, sir.” Keorni stepped forward, his voice deep and firm, and paused at Marik’s right elbow. “What did the thief look like?” His tone was sufficiently officious, but unthreatening. Marik bit his tongue, wondering where the words had gone as his partner took the brunt of Alchnet’s glare.
“Thief was tall. Elven.” Alchnet’s thin eyes shifted behind them, angrily noting the crowds avoiding his tent, then returned to Keorni. “Silver hair.”
A tall elf? Marik found his voice, finally, and jumped in. “Tall, sir?” Most elves were short, save those in the royal family; a tall elf might be bastard nobility. Or just a fluke. Marik, with his fair blonde hair brushing six feet, would have easily towered over any of them.
“Yes. Tall, sir,” the Wizard hissed, his voice pitched mockingly high. He tugged at his beard, straightening it for an instant, then began examining another rack of wands, his dark eyes narrow. “About your height, boy.”
Alchnet keeps his answers short and terse. His eyes shift; at one point, he even hisses at the guards. If you were a happy-go-lucky halfling who’d just won a bet, you wouldn’t be ‘hissing,’ now, would you?
Through the dialogue we also learn the description of a character not even present: the thief is tall, elven, and has silver hair. It’s not the most poetic way to describe a character, but it is, in some cases, effective. Be careful not to use this technique often, however—having your characters described this way is memorable, and it gets impractical very quickly.
Keep in mind that dialogue tags such “hissed” or “snapped” should be used in moderation. “Said” is fine for most instances, and no dialogue tag at all is frequently just as suitable. If you don’t use a tag, however, be sure not to put the name of or refer to someone who isn’t speaking next to the dialogue. Otherwise, it becomes ambiguous as to who’s doing the speaking, as in this example:
“I would like the leather armor.” The shopkeeper tallied up the order.
It's difficult to tell if the quote belongs to a customer or the shopkeeper, here. We can assume it's not the shopkeeper, but the reader automatically associates the dialogue with the nearest name, and so what logically makes sense (that a customer is buying the armor) and what we automatically assume (because the shopkeeper is closest to the quote) is in conflict. Without dialogue tags, be careful to make sure the speaker is unambiguous.
The next example is multi-purpose: it describes the character, gives insight to his personality, and—as an added bonus—shows the benefit of dialect. A thief growing up on the streets doesn’t have the education of a high-elven noble. One of the ways to demonstrate his background is through his language.
“Ye’ve got a fertile imagination on ye, taka. Don’ even try yer dagger.” The stranger’s eyes glinted, and Marik dropped his hand. His captor was a black-haired youth, obviously of Lowertown. At his waist was a belt strapped with at least seven daggers; his left arm boasted a worn leather band with another. “Ye look like ye’ve been ’ere awhile. Ye should know th’ rules. Lessen ye’re just thick ’eaded.” The youth let Marik fall, and leaned against the opposite wall of the narrow alley. He took out a dagger and tested its point. “What’re ye doin’ ’ere?”
The most important thing to remember when using dialect is not to overdo it. Dropping out half the letters in a word and replacing them with an apostrophe isn’t going to sound real. And even in a fantasy story, the reader seldom enjoys a tale that isn’t believable. (To an extent, at any rate.) Beyond that, make sure the character is consistent in his dialect. If he drops all his ‘h’s and never says ‘you,’ only ‘ye,’ remember that. Make a note somewhere—readers often remember such quirks better than the author, and they certainly aren’t going to hesitate to point out an error.
Notice that certain characters speak different ways. A dwarf has more of a tendency to speak roughly, while an elf might use words such as ‘thee’ or ‘thy.’ One of your characters might call everyone ‘mate,’ while another would be disgusted by such camaraderie. How much a character speaks develops their personality. If a seer only speaks once in three pages, while her companions have been conversing the entire time, she might come across as shy, or perhaps wise, depending on what she says. In the same way, someone who always speaks in riddles and rhymes will probably sound a little crazy. It all depends on what you want to convey, but a great deal of personality can fit between the quotation marks.
Here, balance is the key. As said by S. B. Hulsey (“Writing Action Scenes”), too much description can slow down the action. Still, some is not a bad idea—it helps to form a picture of the scene in the reader’s mind.
Of course, my first suggestion isn’t description—it’s choreography. In a battle scene, the placement of characters can be confusing, and the descriptions of their actions are often lacking. I suggest going over your scene mentally, then getting up and trying it yourself. If you’re really dedicated, get a friend or family member to be the other characters. Position them as you imagine the scene, then run through it—is it possible? I’ll use my own scene as an example:
Easily parrying her first advance, the youth darted under her defenses, scoring a light blow on the ribs. As he came out, Krishena slammed the hilt of her dagger against his forehead, and he rolled to the side, blood welling in the wound. Unflinching, he got to his feet in a single fluid movement, seemingly unharmed, though blood ran down the contours of his face. Dropping one of his blades as she threw hers, he grabbed the oncoming missile by the base of the blade, its edge cutting into his hand. Reversing the grip, he circled warily, searching for an opening.
Krishena, the woman, attacked first. The youth, a thief skilled with knives, was able to parry her blow while ducking under her arm and slashing at her ribs. However, he made the attack quickly, since he was defenseless for that short period of time—hence, he only scored a light blow. As he ducked back under her arm, Krishena brought down her own dagger on his forehead, and he rolled with the impact. And so on. I tried this scene myself, and I think it’s actually possible. (Though you’re of course entitled to your opinion.)
And—as I keep saying—little details make it real. If you don’t know much about battles, use your favorite authors for reference—R.A. Salvatore, in particular, is known for his choreography. Or just try the scene and see how it works. Rolling to the side to avoid a blow or reversing the grip on a dagger are both examples of common battle tactics—but it’s not something a barbarian character would do. Fit the fighting style with the character, and try to logically reason out their actions, even if you don’t truly know what they would do.
Remember, not all action scenes have to contain a battle. A court debate can contain a great deal of excitement, even if the characters aren’t fighting. Conflict makes action, but conflict can be emotional as well as physical. Even simple games, in some cases, could be considered action. A game of throwing knives, for example, doesn’t have to turn violent to be fast paced—tension, not violence, defines action.
On a grammatical basis, both dashes and the length of paragraphs are important to the feel of a piece. Dashes bring attention to the second clause of the sentence—almost like an extended comma, or a semi-colon. I usually use them to speed up action; two sentences take far longer to read than just one. With a dash the ideas stay linked, but less formally than with a semi-colon or period. Take the following two examples:
It stuck true, less than a finger’s width from the exact center, drawing looks of surprise from the others of the group. The woman was only one who seemed to not notice.
It stuck true, less than a finger’s width from the exact center, drawing looks of surprise from the others of the group—save the woman.
Shortened sentence style and fast dialogue also help to spice up a scene, but don’t overdo it. If the sentences get too short, the piece sounds choppy and overdramatic.
It’s a combination of action, dialogue, and description that ties any story together. Without action, the story drags on, and the plot never continues; without description, the setting is nothing more than a blank wall. Dialogue shows the characters' personalities, and complements both action and description at the same time. To learn to meld them all takes time, and practice. So start writing!
FARP Article Guestbook
|17 Feb 2011|| Lilmogirl|
I understand what is being said about shortened sentence style and fast dialog, but I am having a hard time with the comparisons. At the end of the first comparison it says, "The woman was only one who seemed to not notice." At the end of the second comparison it says, "Save the woman." In the first one it gives me the understanding that the woman was not paying attention to the happening in her surroundings. In the second, it makes me think that the woman needs to be saved. There just isn’t enough information for me to get a clear understanding of what is going on with the woman in the second comparison. And I do believe if I were reading a book with a dialog like this in it, I would be asking the question, "Why does the woman need to be saved?"
|31 May 2011|| Anon.|
|19 Jun 2011|| Julia K Cellini|
This is a great tutorial! I’ll definately come back to this one when I begin to write action scenes. Awesome examples too, I would like to read the rest of some of these stories.
|22 Nov 2011|| Caitlin|
That was actually very helpful, thank you so much! You seem like a very talented writer and I’d love to continue reading the story you were referencing
|31 Dec 2011|| Anon.|
Thank you. I’ve been working on a book I’m writing, and I noticed it was undescriptive. This helped me alot
I took notes.. I’m a nerd.
|30 Apr 2012|| Hello|
|30 Apr 2012|| Hello|
demi lovato is crazy talented
|23 Jul 2012|| Anon.|
|3 Mar 2013|| Lucas No|
Not to brag, but I’ve been highly praised for my use of description and dialogue.
|8 Apr 2013|| Anon.|
@Lilmogirl, I don’t know if you’re joking, but "everyone - save the woman" actually means "everyone - except for the woman". No need to save anyone, here.
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