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Writer’s Craft #65 – Staging Conversation

March 26, 2012
Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams, Author of Okal Rel Saga

Your host, Lynda Williams, is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). She also works as Learning Technology Analyst for Simon Fraser University and teaches a introductory web development course at BCIT. For a list of Okal Rel titles see: Lynda Williams on

As I edit Part 9: Holy War, of the Okal Rel Saga, I am always asking myself how much business I dare to let intrude on conversations. And dread the errors that creep in when I cut down. Keep your eye on Margaret’s arms in the bit below.

He buckled over with a spasm of hilarity. He slapped his knee when he straightened, trying to get a grip on his giddiness, and sputtered out in guffaws.
“Have you lost your mind?” Margaret demanded.
“No!” Eler exclaimed, and nearly broke out in another fit. “Which is why I’m not challenging the K’isk!” he declared, and grinned at her. “For anybody!”
She dropped her arms to hold them stiffly by her side. “I thought you counted yourself a superior swordsman,” she accused in a stinging tone.
“Yeah,” he said, and rubbed his nose. “Superior. See, that’s relative.”

In the original version:

Margaret gave a start as if she’d been stung. She took a faltering step back, in the grass, blinking at him. She wrapped her arms around herself, holding her elbows inside the folds of her long white sleeves. Looking stricken.

So when she dropped her arms to her sides, it was a change of attitude to match the posture. Now I’m just not sure which version’s better. But I’m still leaning in favor of the KISS principle for movements and expressions in the midst of conversation.
Have you wrestled with keeping your conversations flowing when there’s stuff to stage at the same time?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 6:31 am

    I write fantasy for children, so keeping it simple, clear and pacy is arguably even more important for me. I generally try to have several lines of dialogue without interruption, then only put in some “business” when it’s necessary for the reader to work out who is talking. I try (and I know this isn’t what some real proper writers advise) to avoid too many “said”s, so I will sometimes have my characters nod, stand up, frown, draw a sword, lean against a dragon etc just before they speak, partly to attribute the dialogue and partly to keep the reader in the physical scene. It’s not easy, because you don’t want to interrupt the rhythm of the dialogue, but you also need to keep the scene visual and dynamic, and as you say, you often have to move the action on too. It’s a balancing act, and keeping it feeling natural is the key. Editing is the key! (And possibly reading a draft out loud?)

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 26, 2012 9:23 pm

      Leaning against a dragon, huh? Must try that. 🙂

  2. kellyaharmon permalink
    March 26, 2012 7:17 am

    I use ‘business’ in my dialogue when I want to infer a pause in the rhythm of the speech or make a point of what’s just been said.

    I much prefer stating that a character drops her arms, for instance, than to say, ‘she paused, before continuing…’ although, sometimes, no gesture [or business] seems appropriate and I find I have to resort to something like that.

    Like Lari, I prefer to limit the “saids,” and show who’s talking via action, so ‘business’ kills two birds with one stone for me. And reading out loud is a must!

  3. March 26, 2012 8:49 am

    I have the opposite problem: My dialogue is not visual enough. I want to express complex ideas, and end up with talking heads. My idea-to-action ratio is too high for most readers. I don’t think filling it with people nodding and waving their arms around helps in my case. I need to learn to think differently, and conceive of stories with more action, and be willing to write at longer length in order to do so, rather than try to stuff my idea into the reader’s mind as quickly as possible like an Asimov short story.

    The problem is that the fiction I’ve idolized, and been trained to idolize in writing courses, is the type of fiction that eggheads like me like. I’m studying fan-fiction at the moment. At some places you can look at the viewcount chapter-by-chapter and figure out how many people read each story, where they stopped, and how they rated it. A lot of the stuff that would get rave reviews in a composition course, or included in a Year’s Best anthology, gets downvoted or ignored by real readers. If you can’t explain the story in one or two sentences, odds are readers will not read it, and won’t like it if they do.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 26, 2012 9:28 pm

      Sigh, indeed. The world is an unfriendly place for eggheads like us these days. I have long enjoyed (still do) English classics from Austen to Dickens– leading to longer sentence length in my fiction than the modern reader enjoys. Can’t help being Demish at heart. But have managed to shorten up my sentences.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 26, 2012 9:32 pm

      PS Phil sounds like an interesting project, studying fan fiction for readability tips. How about writing it up for Writer’s Craft (about 200 words) and sending it in to lynda (at)

    • March 28, 2012 3:42 pm

      Oh I hear you on this Phil! Someone called my first novel (SAY IT THREE TIMES) “expermental fiction” and then added, “no offense,” as if that was an insult of the highest degree. Never mind that things like Waiting for Godot, Ulysses, etc. were all considered “experimental fiction” in their time. I guess us “eggheads” just have to find our niche/readers and then be content in knowing we’re part of a small but elite crowd. LOL – or that’s what I tell myself, at least!

  4. tylertork permalink
    March 26, 2012 12:55 pm

    I think it’s easy to overdo this stuff. It’s actually pretty rare that someone hearing a ridiculous suggestion would be reduced to gales of helpless laughter. Perhaps they’d snort and say “Not likely.” Depends on the character of course, but for those who are likely to be killed in them, challenges to duels aren’t really all that funny an idea. Accusing “in a stinging tone” is a bit of overkill too. Mere accusing gets the point across.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 26, 2012 9:29 pm

      Perhaps. The character concerned is a melodramatic sort so he might get away with it where others wouldn’t.

  5. Effie Singer permalink
    March 27, 2012 7:30 am

    I’m with tylertork, here. All the saidbookisms and cartoon actions don’t work for me as a serious reader of comic fiction. Stylistic choices like these may vary, depending on your intended audience.

  6. March 28, 2012 11:42 am

    I write articles for news media, poetry, novels and screenplay. Not having read the story, just the example paragraphs, if I understand correctly, the short paragraph is the original paragraph, and the long one is the revised version, whether it is children or adult books, in my view the original version does not show emotion or worth of what is going on. The second paragraph shows, does not just tell, the reader how they feel about and react to what is going on, it also gives a idea of the character’s personalities.

  7. March 28, 2012 3:46 pm

    Oh yes, I have (still?) struggle with this. I used to be guilty of the talking head syndrome – but then, dialog is the part of the story I like best as a reader so it’s no wonder that’s what I focus on as a writer! – and my mentor finally said to me there comes a point in the story where one of the characters just needs to get up and wave a sword around or something, something to break up the talking and move the story forward. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but now I understand what he meant much better. It might not be a sword, it might not even be an action by one of the speaking characters; the world around us doesn’t pause when we start talking. Birds chirp, cars drive by (and hit potholes and honk, etc.), the wind blows, dogs bark, cats rub against our legs, etc. etc. Sometimes that is enough to keep the reader grounded and break up the talking head stuff.

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