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How to Balance Descriptions, Dialogue, and Action

By on October 30, 2014 . Category Column

Spoken exchanges are an important part of any piece of fiction. Unless you’re working on something like Cast Away or I Am Legend, odds are a good chunk of your scenes feature more than one character, and those characters are going to talk about something during that scene.

Moreover, it’s likely that while they’re talking, something is going to be happening. Anything. Even if they’re just sitting there talking over a cup of coffee, they’re taking some kind of action.

So here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re writing dialogue, so that the scene can progress, the writing can flow, and your reader can proceed without getting confused.


Tag Your Speech

If there is more than one person in the scene, you have to tag every new paragraph of text. Your reader won’t know who’s talking if you don’t, and it’ll drive them crazy. No one wants to have to go back through the conversation and try to sort out who’s saying what, so make it easy for people right off the bat.

Even if you only have two people talking in the scene, I’d still recommend a tag every third line, minimum. It’s easy to lose track of who spoke last, and again, no one wants to wade through a conversation they already read just to make sense of who’s talking.


Include Action (To A Degree)

While you don’t want to bog down your text with descriptions of what’s happening (it will cause readers to lose the flow of the conversation), you can and should include a little description of what the characters are up to.
This can be achieved pretty easily, as long as you keep your descriptions lean. Like so:


                                Lizzie stirred her coffee and said, “I don’t know where he went.”


Really. That simple.

You can also sandwich action between sentences your character is speaking, like this:


“I don’t know where he went,” Lizzie admitted, stirring her coffee. She added more

               sugar, her hands shaking as she fidgeted with the packet. “He didn’t tell me what he was



Now you can put a little more description without losing track of what’s happening.

You can disperse these longer action-passages between untagged lines of speech, as long as it’s clear who’s speaking. Again, try to tag every third line, minimum, to keep the conversation’s flow rolling in your reader’s mind.


Settings Matter

The setting is often very relevant to the conversation, so using the above tips, feel free to incorporate the setting, or even internal dialogue (not in quotes, but just italicized), into the scene. Here’s an example:


The morning was cold. Lizzie pulled her sweater more tightly around herself, wishing

                they’d sat inside the café.

                                Karen watched her sister, brow furrowing. She doesn’t look so good…Karen though,

               realizing how hard this must be on Lizzie.

                                “I…” Karen stopped, taking a deep breath. “I might know how to find

              him,” she said quietly, her voice strangely loud in the empty streets.


Ultimately, you want the lines outside the dialogue to be short and sweet, but you still want them to be there.

The longer the scene of dialogue, the more tactful you have to be. A few exchanged lines are easy to follow, and you can get away with a quick “he said”/”she said”, but if it’s a lengthy conversation, be sure to go over it a few times, read it out loud, and ask a friend or fellow writer to check and make sure it makes sense.

And most of all, have fun with it! Dialogue can be one of the best parts of  story, so enjoy it and that will ensure your readers will, too.


What’s your favorite kind of dialogue to write?


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