GALEN STOOD UP. “LEAD WITH ACTION!”

First of all, be extremely cautious around “trendy” writing advice. If someone tells you that, for instance, no one ever reads prologues so never write a prologue… well, that one I’ve already debunked. Another that keeps popping up is that you should never use any sort of dialog attribution, especially verbs of speaking, including said. Instead, the New Way of Doing Things is to (hopefully) make it clear who said a particular line of dialog by putting an action that character is doing right next to it. I think the theory behind this is that words like “said,” “asked,” or “replied” somehow slow down your readers or even amount to “telling” rather than “showing.”

Of course, that’s nonsense.

Certain words, said included, are read more like punctuation, indicating that a particular character said that or is about to say this in much the same way a period indicates the end of a sentence. It in no way slows down or pulls your reader out of the action. Unless, of course, your reader is somehow infected by this goofball idea and so then starts to see that word when they shouldn’t.

And yes, it is possible to read wrong.

I don’t like to live in an either-or world, so let’s keep both “she said” and “He stood up” in our writers’ toolkits. Sometimes action in place of dialog attribution absolutely is the better way to go, or at least is just as good. Now the trick becomes where to put it.

You might be surprised how often I see something like this:

“Look over there! Do you see that?” Bronwyn pointed up into the sky.

“What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?” Galen looked up then smiled.

“No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!” Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder.

“Oh… that’s… weird…” Galen looked again and blinked in surprise.

What’s wrong with that? We clearly see what’s going on here. We know who’s saying what. The dialog and actions of the characters are set apart in their own paragraphs, but…

It’s in the wrong order.

Whenever possible, action comes first.

Sometimes you point and say “Look!” at the same time. Sometimes you point then say, “Look!” Rarely, I think, do you say “Look,” and then point, but I think I could be convinced that’s possible. But even then, what if your readers don’t know from other context cues that this is Bronwyn speaking until she points—that does take your readers out of the action. Starting with Bronwyn in action carries into the dialog.

In the second sentence, Galen has to look up before he sees the dragon, which makes him smile. That happening after the dialog would indicate that he already knows there’s a dragon there. And again—that might be precisely what you want to convey, since he doesn’t see the airplane yet.

Then Bronwyn slaps him on the shoulder after she tells him about the plane. The order here makes the slap on the shoulder mean different things. Is she mad at him for thinking she’s amazed by a dragon or is she trying to turn his attention to the airplane?

The last sentence is the worst in that we hear Galen’s response then see it. He should look first, then he can speak and blink in surprise in whatever order.

Maybe it’s as easy as changing all but one line?

Bronwyn pointed up into the sky. “Look over there! Do you see that?”

“What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?” Galen looked up then smiled.

Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder. “No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!”

Galen looked again and blinked in surprise. “Oh… that’s… weird…”

I think it would read even better if it was mixed up some, and a little more atmosphere was added. Remember, good storytelling is a balance between what the characters are doing and why the characters are doing it—it’s personal more than procedural.

Bronwyn pointed up into the sky and screamed, “Look over there! Do you see that?”

Galen looked up, his hand going to his sword. Then he smiled when he saw the young wyrm hovering above the castle. “What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?”

Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder. “No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!”

Galen looked again and blinked in surprise. “Oh…” he breathed. The sun glinted off the straight silver wings of the rapidly approaching aircraft. “That’s…” he said, his voice lost to the growing roar of the engines, “weird…”

There’s more to this than learning one rule and strictly adhering to it. Mix it up—listen to what your characters are saying and see what they’re doing. The standard advice for writing dialog is to say it out loud. That can help—do that! But sometimes, you may have to stand up and act it out, too. Have fun with that if you write on a laptop at the local Starbucks.

“Look, Mommy,” the little girl said, pointing at the writer across the coffeeshop, “that man is dancing!”

The author mimed a brutal swing of an imaginary battle-axe. “Take that, orc scum!”

 

—Philip Athans

 

STARTS THIS WEEK!

Two weeks of intensive training in intense horror starts this coming Thursday October, 17 in my online Writers Digest University course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to GALEN STOOD UP. “LEAD WITH ACTION!”

  1. Yes! This is one of my pet peeves. Glad to hear your take on it (and that we agree).

  2. Janetta Maclean says:

    Her eyes widened as she read the text on the screen. Early morning light seemed to fill the room. So that’s how to do it she realised.

    Thank you once again.

    On Tue, Oct 15, 2019, 4:49 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook, wrote:

    > Philip Athans posted: “First of all, be extremely cautious around “trendy” > writing advice. If someone tells you that, for instance, no one ever reads > prologues so never write a prologue… well, that one I’ve already debunked. > Another that keeps popping up is that you should neve” >

  3. JM Williams says:

    Interesting. I’ve only ever heard to avoid putting actions with dialogue, unless necessary. Pretty much the same as fancy dialogue tags. The writing is best when the dialog conveys as much of that context as possible, either tone or action.

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