Dialogue vs. Scene

When does dialogue constitute a scene? If two or more characters are talking to one another about elements of the story they’re featured in, is that a scene? And if it is a scene, how much of it can we include on the page without interspersing it with action?

To me, a scene is where something is happening. It’s a visual depiction of that something. It must be pertinent to the story and move it forward, but if there’s something important to your story, I fervently believe it should be shown and not talked about.

Of course, dialogue does have its place. I recall learning (back in the Dark Ages when I first started writing) three rules about dialogue. Dialogue should do one or more of the following:

  •     Convey character
  •     Reveal information
  •     Move the story forward

So, yes, you could have some number of characters in a room talking, characterizing themselves with their word choices or tone (e.g., using plenty of slang & f-bombs, or more erudite language), revealing information (e.g., that they saw Col. Mustard in the library with a hammer), and moving the story forward (e.g., I’m pregnant, and you’re the father). But if it’s just folks talking in a room, is that really the best way to use dialogue?

The issue is really how much of your book is dialogue in a static place and how much is action that either leads into that dialogue, or action that follows that dialogue. If your story is fast-paced, with your characters constantly in peril, it’s great to have scenes in which they can take a breather, to sit together and just talk and regroup. James Rollins Map of Bones is a good example of that. Rollins places his characters in one dire situation after another, but there are revelations that they have to have time to chew over. So they get to safety and work out what those revelations mean, providing the reader with information, characterizing the characters, and moving the story forward.

Here’s a dialogue example from my book, Tankborn. I’ve taken most of the action out of the exchange between Kayla and her nurture brother, Jal:

“Tala’s out,” Jal said, “cleaning Spil and Zeva’s flat.”
“Then we have time to change and get the river sludge out of our clothes.”
“What about this?”
“I’ll doctor it. If she asks, you slipped climbing down the riverbank.”
“If she’s tired enough,” Jal pointed out, “she might not even
notice the scratch.”
“She’ll notice. She just might not have the energy to push it.”
“Tala shouldn’t have to work so hard.”
“You volunteering to stop eating? We could save plenty of dhans not paying for the kel-grain you inhale.”
“I mean, the trueborns should give her a new baby so she won’t have to clean flats.”

As written above, it’s not really a scene at all. It’s just two talking heads. Here’s the same excerpt with the action included:

    When Kayla slipped into the twenty-ninth warren, Jal was waiting for her by the stairs. “Tala’s out,” Jal said, “cleaning Spil and Zeva’s flat.”
Kayla brushed past Jal and up the stairs. “Then we have time to change and get the river sludge out of our clothes.”
“What about this?” Jal tapped the scratch on his cheek.
“I’ll doctor it. If she asks, you slipped climbing down the riverbank.”
“If she’s tired enough,” Jal pointed out, “she might not even notice the scratch.”
“She’ll notice. She just might not have the energy to push it.”
Jal crowded up past Kayla and walked backward up the stairs. “Tala shouldn’t have to work so hard.”
Kayla slanted a look up at him. “You volunteering to stop eating? We could save plenty of dhans not paying for the kel-grain you inhale.”
Jal gave Kayla a poke. “I mean, the trueborns should give her a new baby so she won’t have to clean flats.”

With the interspersed action, the dialogue becomes a scene. Not so much a whizbang high-action scene, but we get a sense of place, and a sense of the relationship between Kayla and Jal, as well as revealing information about their nurture mother, Tala.

If you’re a writer, how do you handle dialogue to avoid the dreaded Talking Heads Syndrome? If you’re a reader, what do you think of dialogue that’s independent from action? I’d love to hear others’ opinions.

 

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
This entry was posted in Books, Strongly Held Beliefs, Tankborn Origins, The Writing Life, Writing Craft and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dialogue vs. Scene

  1. anonymous says:

    My scenes are more action than dialogue. I need more dialogue with my action, but that comes last for me, after I set the scene and place and the action in the scene.

I do appreciate your comments on what I've written. However, I will no longer approve anonymous comments. Thank you.

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