Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.


Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.

4 thoughts on “Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting Post. I believe that dialogue is driven by character and their situations .
    In Gotham Harvey Bullock – the main protagonist’s police partner does not fear Oswald Cobblepot , a crime boss who’s life was spared by James Gordon whom he respects enough not harm anyone close to him. – Through dialogue Harvey Bullock humiliates Cobblepot causing him to brake a wine glass which Bullock drank in front of him.

    In The wolf of Wall street , in attempt to get his mind of his bleak situation Jordan Belfort forcefully makes love to his wife Naomi Lapaglia whom declares that she wants a divorce. A enraged Belfort turns violent and resorts to drug use and physical violence sparking a chain of actions that play out for the duration of the scene. ( It’s a very powerful scene)

    In short : Good Dialogue pocks at the emotional core of your charters giving them motive for their actions

  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thanks, Stephen. In fact it’s more than description. It is layers of meaning that inflect the dialogue, apart from adding a tactile quality to the scene.

  3. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Interesting, Stavros, thanks. I really like what you’ve said about dactions – and the example of lovingly brushing the poodle’s coat while talking about murder is chilling. I know that I sometimes have too much dialogue when I write and too little description. I’ll employ the dactionary more often – thanks.


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