Weekly Writing Memo: When to Include Movement with DialoguePosted: July 13, 2016
One thing I’ve noticed during my time reading and critique fiction, is that not everyone includes movement of characters, or actions, within the dialogue scenes. This is a pretty obvious thing, as not all scenes would call for it, but how do you know when you should or shouldn’t include movement with the dialogue?
One reason to include movement in dialogue is that it moves the story forward physically in a way that dialogue generally cannot. The exception to this is if you write like Shakespeare or other playwrights where they often imply or describe the movements in the speech. If a scene of dialogue goes on for a long while without any movement, it can make the reader feel like the story is standing still as two or more characters talk things out. Adding in the body movements can make the reader feel like the characters are actually doing something and that the story is still progressing forward, even if the characters are staying in one room.
Movement can also help emphasize certain words that are being said, as well as how they are being said, and can even be used to tell more about the character who is speaking. For example, if your character is trying to act tough but doesn’t feel very tough at all, you can give them strong words in the dialogue but have their body language be weak to show they’re not confident in the words. This can be a subtle way to show a lot about the character without telling.
Another example of this is if you want to emphasize a characters anger, you can have them throw something or slam something. Yes, these types of gestures can venture into cliché, but when done well they can also really highlight how a character is feeling and what they mean by their words.
Movement can also be used as a transition of subjects in dialogue. If you jump from one subject to another in dialogue without any sort of physical break on the page, the story can feel clunky or awkward, and sometimes throw the reader out of the story. Adding in the movement between a subject change can slow things down for the reader and make the transition smoother by helping the reader follow the speaker’s train of thought. An example:
“I want to go to the park,” Bobby said. He looked down the street as the milk truck drove by, then turned back to his brother. “Did mom go to grocery store yet? We should eat first.”
If you remove the dialogue tag and the action, the dialogue seems cluttered, rushed, and not necessarily cohesive: “I want to go to the park. Did mom go to the grocery store yet? We should eat first.” Written this way, the character seems almost like his has an attention disorder. By using movement, you can create a pause between the subject shifts if needed, or use the opportunity to help show the reader what is the cause of the subject shift as done above.
There are a few spots where movement should not be in dialogue, but really it should be judged on a scene-by-scene basis. If you are having an important conversation where the emphasis really needs to be on the words, then the focus should be the dialogue with movement only added in where an action is needed for the story.
If you have a long scene with a lot of movement and little dialogue, then keeping the dialogue sections movement free can help balance the chapter out. If you add more movements into a scenario such as this one, it can make the dialogue feel cluttered and buried in all the actions in the story.
Another exception is if you have a slower chapter and want to speed the dialogue up some, then you can take out the movement. A segment of dialogue with minimal movements or dialogue tags can really speed up a chapter because the reader can move through it quickly, focusing just on what is being said by the characters.
Ultimately, each instance of where to put movement within the dialogue should depend on the scene and the writer’s goal for the scene. If you understand what the effect of the actions and movements in dialogue are, then you can understand how to use them in the strongest way for your story. If you really want to understand it, take some of your favorite novels and look at the scenes with dialogue. See how the author handles them and try to figure out the effect it has on the story. Really, when working on any aspect of writing, seeing how it has been done and then experimenting with it yourself is the ultimate way to understand it.