When you write a story, ask yourself this question: Would anyone want to see my story as a movie? There is a fine balance between action and dialog when writing a story. I’m used to putting a lot of action in many of my stories because I write down what I see in my mind as if I’m watching a movie.
Years ago I wrote a script for a script writing contest. It was titled “To The Nth Degree.” It started out with a sister and brother with their best friend sitting in the back seat of their car being kidnapped. They are taken because the kidnappers want to hold them for ransum. But they are rescued by a group that do it because their friend has a father who is working for the Alien Cooperation Enterprise. They are kidnapped by another group of aliens until they are rescued again. By the end of the script, the brother and sister and friend along with scores of others find the lost fleet of Ortasia and use it to save the world from an attack by evil aliens. That script didn’t win. But it had a lot of action and inspired me to include ACE in two of my books that were published and in the future I intend on writing about ACE from its founding in 1897 by President McKinley after he meets with a delegation from another dimension to sometime in the future. It could comprise a dozen books and go well beyond any futuristic books ever written.
If a story is nothing but action, it is like a video game. You go in, kill a bunch of bad guys, run for your life, and hopefully survive the game. The less anyone says, the better. I rarely play video games. They offer a lot of mindless violence and aren’t uplifting.
If a story has nothing but dialog, it is like a lecture. People who consider themselves sophisticated or cultured go for stories with a lot of dialog. Many of the longest books are loaded with dialog. They often have a lot of characters that do a lot of talking. But I rarely read any of them. I want to see characters do a lot of action and talk only when they need to say anything.
Sometimes it’s easy to write long pieces of dialog because I have characters that have a lot to say. Actually, writers often write monologs that are like lectures. Unless the character is a teacher or a philosopher or a politician, a monolog isn’t all that interesting and readers stop reading the story.
Dialog should be short and to the point as often as possible. I’ll give you some examples of dialogs, monologs, action, and a mix of each.
Trent said, “Hey Bud, are you interested in going down to the Pizza Palace to grab a slice? Or would you rather have some fish, or shrimp, or lobster, or clams, or oysters, or crab legs? Or would you like to go to Mickey D’s for a Big Mac, or a quarter pounder, or a specialty sandwich? Or would you like some curly fries at the Fry Shack?”
“I don’t know.”
After reading that dialog, I wouldn’t know either what I wanted. It was a list of places and different foods. A better dialog might be this:
Trent asked, “Hey Bud, want go out and grab a bite to eat?”
“Sure. I’m sort of hungry for a hot slice of sausage pizza.”
“Sounds good. We’ll go down to the Pizza Palace then.”
That dialog is more natural and moves the story faster. Here is an example of a monolog:
Coach Morgan gathered his boys in the locker room for a pep talk and said, “Men, the other team is tough; probably tougher than any other team we have ever played. Tom Marks averages 20 points a game, is 80% at the free throw line, and grabs a dozen rebounds on a bad day. Steve Kent averages 15 points a game, is 75% at the free throw line, and blocks shots so well that it’s surprising anyone can score against him. Bill Miller is a scoring machine that is nearly unstoppable. Whoever is on him will have a handful. And then there is Jack Grey their play maker. He is one of the best court commanders I’ve ever seen. He always seem able to find an open man to pass to even when the team is being played man-to-man.
“I had a coach in college that gave some great advice. Never fear your opponents. Fear can make a strong man weak. Respect your opponents but never fear them. If they see you have no fear, they might second guess themselves and make errors you can take advantage of. A good team can beat a great team if the good team plays like the great team and makes it look like only a good team.
“Let’s get out there and win this game.”
In a movie, the boys would be listening closely to every word their coach says. In the real world, not all of the boys would be paying full attention to what the coach says. One might be thinking of his girlfriend while another might be worried about an upcoming test. A reader wouldn’t know that because the coach is going on and on about some of the players on the other team. Here is what might make the monolog a little more interesting and more like a dialog:
Coach Morgan gathered his boys in the locker room for a pep talk and said, “Men, the other team is tough; probably tougher than any other team we have ever played. Tom Marks averages 20 points a game, is 80% at the free throw line, and grabs a dozen rebounds on a bad day. Tim, can you handle him?”
“You better more than try or we’re dead out there.”
In this monolog/dialog, the coach involves his team and makes the pep talk seem more real. He wants feedback from his team members and the reader wants the story to move. The conversation is longer than the monolog. But it has more life than a dull monolog.
Here is an example of an action scene in a story:
The opposing forces were separated by a deep valley. The trumpets blew and 50,000 men converged on the field of battle and hacked at each other like butchers with their gleaming swords that soon were stained with blood.
The cavalry on both sides galloped into the valley and continued the slaughter. Blood flowed from the wounds inflicted upon the steeds and the screams from the dying animals mixed with the cries of anguish from the soldiers that dropped like so many sacrificed animals.
The battle lasted from early morning into the early evening when the side with the most men declared victory and took the remaining soldiers they had fought against out of the valley and placed them into prison where they eventually died from starvation.
I condensed hours of combat into three paragraphs. There is nothing but action and no dialog. But it is more like a video game that has no soul. The reader isn’t compelled to sympathise with one side over the other. Stalin said one death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic. If there is nothing but action, the story becomes more like a statistic and has as much life as one of the dead soldiers or horses on the field.
Here is how the battle scene might be changed to make it a bit better:
The opposing forces were separated by a deep valley. General Mack told his men, “Courage, men. Your swords are thirsty for the blood of men that are little more than animals.”
The trumpets blew and down into the valley swarmed the warriors from both sides. Men were hacked apart by swords and axes with no mercy. General Mack confronted two enemy soldiers that tried to throw the man off his mount. But his sword was too lethal for them.
I could go on with the battle. But it would take pages and not just a few paragraphs. But the readers would have someone to support. A battle is more than just combat. It is life and death and the struggle to survive. It’s not just 50,000 soldiers. It’s 50,000 individuals that have families, interests other than fighting, and dreams about the future. Readers would care more for them and consider them like they are.
Readers want to empathize with characters and have characters they can oppose. Dialog can show readers what the characters are thinking and how they feel. Action shows how they act.
I find at times that dialog can slow action and act like mud to bog down a story. But at times a story needs dialog to give readers a breather from the action. Here is an example:
Ray dashed into the room and said to Bill, “Ratso is after me. Where can I hide?”
“Not here. Go out the back. If he shows up, I’ll try to slow him down.”
Ray was closing the back door when Bill heard a shout at the front door.
“Let me in. I know that sonofabitch Ray is in there.”
“He’s not here. Come on in and see for yourself.”
Bill opened the door and was pushed aside by Ratso and two of his gang members.
“Search the house,” shouted Ratso. His gang members split up and entered the bedroom and a closet.
There is a lot of action and the dialog gives the readers a breath between action scenes. I haven’t told you why Ratso is after Ray. But you can tell Bill is a good friend because he is giving his friend time to put some distance between himself and Ratso.
Names are used to tell readers what type of people they are at times. I picture Ratso as a tough little guy that would be willing to cut you up if given the chance. His gang members are a little bigger than he is. But Ratso is tough enough to control them with no problem.
When you read about a character named Zooltron, you might see in your mind some big green alien who wants to take over the world. He probably has a menacing voice and his actions can be brutal.
I like to name a lot of charcters weird names because I feel people from other dimensions probably are more likely to be named Ramshief Hooganvisor or Drozin Kanfibulac than Joe Jones or Bill Smith. In one of my stories I wrote about an android named Nok. With a name like that I wanted readers to envision a strong synthetic being. In the story he was strong enough to hold onto an 85 foot sea serpant and keep it from sinking into the ocean.
Nok was a synthetic of action. He didn’t have a squeaky voice. It would be deep and able to shake the windows. But he is more into acting than talking. If he wasn’t the companion of a missionary, I would hate to get him angry at me if that were possible.
If a character is named Bubba, you don’t expect him to talk like a professor at Oxford. You also don’t expect him to run like a deer. It might work if the name Bubba is sarcastic. But normally, a Bubba is more like a red neck who is wearing bib overalls and more likely to take a nap than run a marathon.
When it comes to balancing action and dialog, various types of stories determine the mix of action and dialog. I write a lot of science fiction. I tend to show more action than dialog. I have written western stories and there is more action than dialog. But the people of the time were more into acting than talking. I’ve written comical stories and there is more dialog because action at times because readers expect jokes and funny stories. Prat falls are action scenes. Books of philosophy are expected to have mainly dialogs and monologs. Biographies have a nice mix of dialogs, monologs, and action.
As I stated at the start, would your story make a good movie and would people want to watch it? You also need to ask, would my story be better read by a story teller or a professor in a lecture hall? Don’t let dialogs or monologs bog down a story. Let them be natural breaks from the action. If you like your story and others like it, maybe it can be made into a movie. If you have an audience for the movie, that means you have succeeded in producing the proper mix of action and dialog with maybe some profound monologs.