with Randy Henderson
How do you find the right balance between dialogue and action in a short story? Is there a trick to it or is it different for every story?
The implication is that dialogue covers, or at least signals, all the really important bits – the dramatic bits, the revelation of plot points, and where the character is expressing something, revealing their thoughts and feelings, their desires and fears, their intentions and regrets. Dialogue also reveals conflicts and connections between characters, and expresses the tension of the plot. Dialogue that is not doing any of these things, then, dialogue that is mundane or thinly veiled exposition, is a prime candidate for the waste bin.
On the other hand, you shouldn't try to put everything into dialogue. Your characters may begin to seem like little more than puppets there to mouth the author's As You Know Bob infodumping and plot explanation. Action has its place, to manifest in the physical world the character's motivations (including sometimes the desire simply to survive, though this is actually a weak motivation story-wise). And without setting and description, we cannot visualize who is speaking, or where they are speaking, or what they are doing as they speak.
So let the characters say what these specific characters would naturally say given their situation, feelings and motivation (shaped by their personality, background, etc.), and share with the reader only the most interesting and relevant things said. Let the action, the description and narration say the rest.
To blur the lines a bit, you can also have non-verbal dialogue, conveyed through actions. And dialogue itself is action since something is happening, and that something is ideally dramatic, and possibly filled with conflict and tension, and moving the story forward. You can slice someone with words as surely as with a sword. In fact, it is quite often more memorable and enjoyable to the reader if you do.
Ultimately, though, dialogue and action in genre fiction are really just different aspects of the same thing – ways to move the story forward in a dramatic way, ideally with some form of tension.
In other words, it is what underlies the dialogue and action that is truly important, and will tell you if you are sharing the right bits of dialogue and action, and if those bits are conveying what you need them to.
What is it that should underlie the dialogue and action? The motives and needs of the characters. The characters should want and/or need something in every scene, and their words and actions are their way of trying to get it, or of dealing with the aftermath of being thwarted in getting what they want or need, and forming new plans to get what they want or need. If we care about the characters and whether they get what they want or need, then the dialogue and action become meaningful to us.
On a more technical level, you can use dialogue and action to control pacing. Dialogue tends to speed up the pace, as does action sequences written in short, active sentences, while dense and lyrical narrative slows it down and gives the reader a breather before pumping up the adrenaline again.
And finally, yes, every story does have its own tone and style, and the uses of dialogue and action reflect that. For example, a romantic fantasy may be heavy on banter and barbs between the characters, allowing us to share in the growth of their relationship, while an urban fantasy story may be heavy on the narration and action scenes but with short snappy dialogue.
For my Penumbra story "The Beloved Changeling Who was Neither", I imagined the story being told by an old man in an Irish pub to find the story's voice and style. In such narrated tales, and in most first person or omniscient fiction, the narration itself is a kind of dialogue between the narrator and the reader, reflecting the narrator's voice, and following the rules of dialogue more than the formal rules and restrictions of second, tight third or omni narration.
My closing thought is to read your work out loud. It is the best way to catch false dialogue, or areas of too-dense narration, and issues with pacing and balance.
Happy writing, folks.
Randy Henderson's fiction can be spotted frolicking in places like Penumbra, Escape Pod, Realms of Fantasy, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. He is a 1st Place winner of Writers of the Future, a Clarion West graduate, a relapsed sarcasm addict, and a milkshake connoisseur who transmits suspiciously delicious words into the ether from his secret lair in Kingston, Washington.
Learn more about Randy Henderson on his blog Smorgh is Bored. Stay connected on Facebook and Twitter.