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For context, I'm writing a scene where a bunch of characters are having a serious but humorous, over-the-top argument about who should inherit a fortune.

So far, I've got a lot of dialogue but I haven't written much action/physical interaction between the characters apart from just saying "X exchanged glances with Y" / "Z's frustration began to build" etc. Do you think it is necessary to have some sort of relevant action going on in the background (e.g. physical actions by the characters, interaction with their environment/other characters) to keep it engaging and not too dialogue-heavy?

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Dialogue can perform a range of functions in a story.

  1. It can reveal a lot about the character speaking.
  2. Dialogue tags can reveal a lot about how the character speaking views other characters.
  3. The narration framing dialogue can reveal a lot about how other characters view the speaker.

There's a good series of posts on Reedsy about making tags and narrative work here. There are also some good pages on dialogue on John Matthew Fox's website here, here, and here.

It's up to you, as author, to decide what balance you want between action, description, dialogue, feeling in any scene you write.

What I don't see that much of and I would like to see more of is writers focusing on characters' spoken voices - but that takes specialist knowledge. Habitual voice quality is very telling; natural voice quality - the kind of sound that makes you feel instantly relaxed and at ease, that makes you feel like you are in the presence of someone with charisma and personal power - is even more telling. Then you have voice use - a speaker can change their volume, pitch, speed of delivery, length and number of pauses, and their emotional tone.

Train your ear, train your eyes, train your instincts, and the details you notice about how and why speakers say what they do will help you 'tell the tells' that reveal so much about the complexity of human beings and will help you create rounded, 3D dialogue scenes that bring your characters to life.

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  • So what's your answer? Is it, "No, action isn't necessary"? Sep 18 at 14:49
  • It's up to you, as author, to decide what balance you want between action, description, dialogue, feeling in any scene you write. Each element has a purpose. In your situation, as an exercise, I'd write an account of performers delivering 'To be or not to be ...' and 'Then, I confess, / Here on my knee, before high heaven and you ...' - and see what different treatments did. Sep 18 at 15:46
  • "It's up to you, as author, to decide what balance you want between action, description, dialogue, feeling in any scene you write." I mean, I don't disagree, just noticed that you didn't seem to have answered the question (I'm not OP, btw) Sep 18 at 16:46
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    Thanks - I've updated the answer so it now contains the more specific stuff you highlighted. Sep 19 at 9:13
  • You can just have line after line of dialog. Just use a dialog tag ("... Michael said") every so often so the reader doesn't get lost, and maybe occasional action ("Jane threw up her hands.) But reading a while page of just alternating dialog feels perfectly natural. Sep 21 at 19:46
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Besides the actual words, a section of dialog can (should?) also contain the following:

Setting. The dialog should not take place in a white room, but the scene should also not start with a block of description. Instead, start the scene with as little description of setting you can get away with and then let the reader discover the rest as the characters interact with it.

Body language. Showing characters' emotions with body language are important. How are they sitting or standing? Are they moving around? What are they doing with their arms and hands? Legs? Feet? Facial expressions are of course also part of body language, but we usually "speak" with our whole body, even if we don't always realize we do.

Quirks and mannerisms. Both part of how words are spoken and body language, quirks and mannerisms can also be shown in dialog. Especially if the character is stressed or bored, but also to show character.

Dialog cues. How are the words spoken? Especially with images and symbolism, e.g. "a predator-on-the-move rhythm"

Subtext. Dialog is great for having characters not saying what they mean, and using that to make the scene deeper and the dialog more meaningful.

Thoughts. If you have a POV character their thoughts can be used not only to think about the scene but also to comment on it, even taking something that sounds straightforward and add subtext to it.

Visceral emotion. Also, if you have a POV character, you can use them to underline the climax of the scene (or some other important part) by showing the POV character having a visceral emotional response to what is happening.

Of course, you always do all of this in order to support the purpose of the scene, be that showing character or setting, revealing story twists, or something else any scene can do (see close to the end of this answer for a list of purposes).

If you want to read more about some of the things listed above, check out Margie Lawson's lecture on "Empowering Characters' Emotions." (You have to pay for it, but I really recommend it!)

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