Tools of the fiction writer: dialogue, action, explanation – in that order

September 11, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, writing.

Having written a little fiction and read a lot of it, I hereby humbly offer a few thoughts as to the tools that a fiction writer has when structuring a story. These tools are secondary to character and plot, but they are the engines of storytelling:

Dialogue. Characters have to talk to each other and to themselves. How they talk and what they say is enormously important to their development and vitally interesting to their readers, especially when they talk to each other. Dialogue is the number one tool that fiction writers have for making their stories engaging for readers.

A side note on dialogue: Characters should have conversations that are natural, not stilted. Characters shouldn’t make speeches to each other. Conversations are exchanges. If one character says something, the reader should have a fair idea of how the other character reacts to it.

There are lots of places to find good dialogue. For me, the place to start is with any Sherlock Holmes story.

Action.  In order for the plot to develop, characters must not only talk, but they must also take action. They must move from one place to the next, but the movements that are recorded in the story should always be relevant to the plot.

Good thrillers often contain great action scenes. That’s what they’re all about. The fiction writer who wants to bone up on writing action should pick a couple of good thrillers and read them carefully.

Explanation. If you can’t explain a story with dialogue and action, then expository material can be used. But for the fiction writers, it is the least of the three tools (by far) and should be used only when other resources are exhausted. Most of what I am talking about here could come under the term of background.

Writers sometimes fall into the trap of believing they must explain their stories rather than tell their stories. They do not trust their own abilities to tell a good tale, and they do not trust the reader to be able to figure things out. They may begin a story with a good action scene or a good dialogue set, but then they panic and launch into expository material.

One reason for doing this is that writers find the backgrounds of their plot and characters more interesting than the stories they have set out to tell. But that’s not why the reader is there. The reader wants the story, not the background.




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