Action, Description and Dialogue

Man in silhouetteBlending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.

But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.

Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.

Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.


Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.

How Do You Become A Better Writer?

Multicolored chalkA writer’s path from competence to excellence is a difficult one. It meanders, advances, turns back on itself. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that the traveler will reach her destination. Excellence will elude all but the most talented and fortunate of writers.

Great writing requires a special combination of mental skills, social circumstances, effort, passion, as well as a fair bit of luck — few of us will keep writing if we keep failing to be published or to garner some positive criticism from our readers.

Despite this, I do believe that the ability to write well can be taught, I wouldn’t be a teacher of the craft if I didn’t believe in the benefit of practice and study. I believe writing is a craft, as much as an art, like woodwork or cooking, although it requires much more than technique to cure into a great dish.

While acknowledging that there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development falls into three distinct categories:

1. Understanding the function of structure in stories — how structure paces and orders the reader’s response.

2. The ability to identify meaningful ideologies, ideas and trends from life and distill them into specific themes, characters and events in a way that makes the story both specific and universal.

3. The ability to develop a distinct voice — a difficult entity to pin down, but one that might be understood as the unique pattern arising out of the writer’s body of work.

I have found that thinking about my development as a writer in this way allows me to identify and group specific weaknesses into categories and work on them in a more methodical way.

Perhaps you might benefit from a similar approach?


Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the broader categories.


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Do You Write From The Inside Out?

Silhouette of a man's headOne of the secrets of writing successful stories is the ability to write from the inside out. That is, to write action and plot from the emotional, moral, and spiritual perspective of characters who are deeply invested in the story.

It took me a while to figure this out. I thought, for a long time, that stories were primarily about exciting and colourful external events, spun around the mechanism of surprise. Writing from the inside out sounded like the sort of thing you’d do when attempting to write literature.

Boring, right?


The truth is that if you don’t care about your character’s fears, obsessions, and motivation, you won’t care about her physical actions.

A character responds to the challenges facing her in the way she does precisely because she has a backstory, a personality, a set of foibles, mores, and obsessions. It is these that give the character’s actions verisimilitude.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a physicist obsessed with solving a set of equations that will eventually allow for time travel into the past. He feels responsible for his wife’s death and has dedicated his life to rewriting the past. His obsession prevents him from realising that he is a man trapped by guilt and regret, unable to live the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him.

In Nobel prize winner William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral is a man consumed by the desire to extend his cathedral’s glory through the building of a spire at the top of the structure. He ignores the advice of the master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning the cathedral into a building site, claiming that God will provide solutions.

The novel is an intense study of how will and obsession can lead to inevitable catastrophe. The external events concerning the building of the structure are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological state, forcing the reader to experience the story through his sensibility while simultaneously foregrounding his folly.

We could do worse than emulate this kind of intensity in our own characters regardless of setting, genre, or era.


Imbue your characters with a strong will, beliefs and obsessions to enliven and motivate their behavior.


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Have You Checked Your Story?

Scales So, you’ve finished your screenplay or novel. Is it as good as you can make it? Other than gut-feel, how can you tell?

Here’s a shortened checklist, via Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, to help you decide:

Do you start in the right place? Not too soon or too late?
Is your first chapter or scene riveting and compelling?
Does each scene have structure and purpose?
Does each scene or chapter end on an intriguing note?
Are your flashbacks absolutely necessary?
Have you prepared the reader or audience for surprises through foreshadowing?
Are your characters authentic and compelling?
Does your protagonist have difficult problems to overcome, leading to the final solution?
Does your protagonist solve the ultimate problem by realising something about herself she was unaware of before?
Are your characters’ names right for them?
Do your characters have their own unique voice – idiom, speech pattern?
Do you have interesting settings?
Do you invoke the five senses in your scenes.
Is your ending surprising but inevitable?
Does it yield the theme you intended?

If you’ve answered no or maybe to any of these questions highlight them, return to your manuscript, revise and repeat. Your story will be the better for it.


Use a checklist to fine tune your story.


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Show Me With Your Body

Girl holding sunThe adroit use of body language to enrich character meaning and intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill. It forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes our writing crisp and resonant.

Take the following snippet from my recent novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in your story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of your character’s emotions.


Use body language to describe a character’s inner life.

A Career in Writing? How to choose?

Bird in flightA student recently asked my advice on choosing her degree for the forthcoming year at college. She was at a crossroads and had to decide between a degree in screenwriting and something else.

It is always a challenge to advise students about which course of study to follow. There are so many variables – personal circumstances, talent, earning potential of a career, desire and love for it, all delicately and dynamically poised on the scales of local and world economics, politics, fads and fashions.

There is a huge responsibility riding on the purveyor of such advice. Does the student sacrifice preference for security? Does she follow her heart rather than her mind? In the context of the current economic climate, who’s to say, anyway?

I remember asking a similar question of a professor of literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg many years ago. He was a rather eloquent man with a quiet manner about him. He thought about my question for a moment before responding, (and here I paraphrase):

We are either engineers of the world’s body, or engineers of the world’s soul.

The first sort prefers solving external problems. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, such people generally love working with numbers, managing external goals, keeping great physical structures functional and erect. They are scientist, civil engineers, accountants, and the like.

The second group is more inward looking, curious about its motives and the motives of others. They constantly try to make sense of their lives by experiencing the events in them as factual stories – by creating a running documentary of their lives. They are avid readers, often have an almost obsessive desire to explore the meaning of words; they tend to perceive the world through metaphor and idiom, draw on stories to understand the world and themselves. Such people make good lawyers, psychologists, priests, social workers, and, of course, writers.

As I walked away from the professor’s office to mull over his advice, I couldn’t help thinking about the exceptions, about the mixing of categories. Arthur C. Clark, for example, was a scientist and a writer. Stanley Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker with a strong scientific zeal that informed his work. There are many others.

As I continued to think about things it became clear to me that passion for one’s field is important, and although the professor’s separate categories may be helpful, they are also porous, allowing for an exchange of material.

In the end, my decision to study literature, and later, filmmaking, was based on one overriding factor. Inspiration – I enrolled for the courses that inspired me.

Perhaps the student might consider doing the same.


Choose the field that inspires you.

A Great Story Depends on Great Timing

Clock faceIn a previous article I discussed the importance of syncing your hero’s outer journey to his inner journey – to his character arc. Today I want to say a bit more about the nature of that syncing.

It’s important to emphasise that your hero should not act beyond his state of moral and practical wisdom – his performance at the level of the outer journey has to reflect his knowledge at the level of the inner journey.

But why, then, if the hero keeps learning from the outer journey’s knocks, if the hero keeps improving, does he keep failing to attain the goal, until the end of the story?

The answer is to be found in the precise nature of the syncing, which is to say that the lesson learnt is always one step behind the evolving challenges posed by the outer journey. Hence, the knowledge the hero brings to a new confrontation is less than required to gain the goal and defeat the antagonist at that moment.

It is only towards the end of the journey that the hero is able to integrate the wisdom gained from the series of hard knocks, dig deep inside and produce a superlative response which defeats the antagonist and gains the goal.

In my best selling novel, Scarab, for example, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants (to win Emma’s love) in order to gain what he needs (to save Emma’s life). It is a realisation that takes most of the story to achieve.


The lessons learnt by the hero lag behind the evolving challenges of the outer journey and the wisdom needed to defeat the villain and gain the goal until the end of the story.

What Do You Write About?

Fountain pen nibIN a previous post I asked the question: Why do we write? The answers were as varied as they were numerous – from a need to express oneself to the need to make money. This week I want to chat about a follow-on question: What do we write?

Ostensibly, the answer seems uncomplicated, depending on the reasons we write. Some of us write in certain genres because that’s what our readers have come to expect of us. But genres constrain, to a certain extent, what we can write about. A western most typically features the countryside, guns and horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, which is not to say, of course, that such stories are not varied, especially if one keeps genre-mixing in mind. Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind here.

Then there are those writers who do not stick to specific genres, but dwell in the mystical spaces between them, writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. These stories tend to distinguish themselves less through the pizzaz of depicted events and more through the style, language, and a closer focus on the detail.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer to what we write, what our stories are really about, lies in the theme. It is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound.

Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Scarab, for example, is a tale involving a mystical Sphinx-like creature, a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics, and a maniacal killer dressed in black. I had hoped to write a yarn that was entertaining and thought-provoking and, judging by the comments of my readers, it appears that I succeeded. Scarab became a bestseller in Amazon’s sci-fi category and stayed there for a couple of years.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative is imbued with emotions and everyday events that we all recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances might be. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and artistic discovery – they deal with similar themes.

Answering the original question with this approach in mind, then, I’d say that I write about recurring themes that interest me. The style, genre and specific narrative events are a secondary concern.

Perhaps you hold a similar view?


The theme is what a story is really about.

The Hero’s Journey

Barb wire against sunsetI have often said that one of the joys of being a teacher of creative writing is that it affords me the opportunity to reflect critically upon my craft during the day and implement the insight this affords my own writing later.

Interestingly, moments of deeper inspiration tend to well up during the execution of the lecture rather than its preparation.

It was during such a lecture on character arcs that it occurred to me that one prevailing weakness in student work – failing to make the hero’s actions feel authentic – lay in students not having synchronised their hero’s outer and inner journeys.

To put it simply, their heroes acted too wisely or competently at specific points in the story. The action did not reflect the hero’s current state of knowledge, skill, and moral fortitude. Their inner and other lives were out of sync.

It stands to reason that if the character arc, in a classical tale, describes the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge (by which I mean moral and skill-based knowledge) through trail and error, then the quality of the hero’s actions must needs be weak in the beginning of the story and become effective only at the end. A hero therefore, can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the villain, taking the high moral ground, too early. She is simply not equipped enough for it yet.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t free himself of his guilt until he recognises the truth about his past granted to him during the cyclone.

One way to add to verisimilitude to your hero’s actions, then, is to sync up her inner journey (her decision-making process), to her outer journey (the execution of her actions in her world); to have her earn success through a series of hard knocks where lessons, both moral and physical, are learnt. This will not only synchronise the two primal layers of the story, but it will help grant your protagonist a strong measure of authenticity too.


Synchronise your hero’s inner and outer journeys to help authenticate her actions.


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Does the Novel Have a Future in this Gadget-Crazy World?

LibraryThere was a time that I was not as upbeat about the future of reading as a form of entertainment as I am now.

The desktop computer was the hot topic of the decade, driving the burgeoning games industry and a torrent of spectacular special effects movies to greater and greater heights, while book sales steadily decreased. How could the written word stand up to such a challenge?

Sure, screen and game writers were assured of a bright future, but what was to become of the poor novelist? Could she expect smaller and smaller slices of the loaf until she starved to death?

As things turned out I need not have worried. The tablet revolution, sparked by kindle, and taken up by the likes of kobo, iPad, and android devices, would be the game changer.

Suddenly, people who had drifted away from books, especially the youth, found it cool to be reading on brand new technology. It satisfied their fascination with gadgets. Tablets started popping up from a range of manufacturers. Reading was the winner, which, of course, was good news for writers, although not without hiccups.

Any major upheaval in the established order creates instability. As companies continue to experiment on how best to bring writers, readers and their products together they make mistakes. Writers are often on the receiving end.

Publishing houses, too, are having to adapt to ensure survival. The landscape is continually changing making it difficult to predict what’s next. Opinions fly around with detractors and supporters of traditional versus electronic publishing fighting it out in countless blogs and forums. My attitude is that as long as people keep reading, whatever the format, I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, I am optimistic about the novel. After all, stories will remain an important part of life no matter what.


Stories are a necessary part of life. Write them. Read them. Enjoy them.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.