Picking The Right Time

I’ve written a lot about dialogue (start here and here). Now I want to introduce the idea of keeping a scene going and picking the right time to interrupt the flow. What’s the best time to insert information, description, dialogue tags, or action?

If your answer is, “Uhhhh, whenever I think of it?” then congratulations, you’re like most writers. But just because you think of inserting something into a scene at a certain moment doesn’t mean that’s the best moment.

We’ve all had the experience, I think, of reading a manuscript (our own or a critique partner’s) and getting involved in a scene. Great! We’ve all also gone with the writer on a tangent when they interrupt the scene to insert some kind of block of text, right? Then the scene restarts with a rejoinder or response–”I completely agree with you,” she said–and…wait a minute! What were they talking about? You scroll up madly to reconnect the conversational thread.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scene is about the dialogue. It’s not about the dialogue tags. It’s not about the actions or gestures that accompany the speech. It’s not about the description of the cafeteria around the characters who are speaking, unless it just so happens to break out in a food fight and interrupt them. It’s about what’s being said. Or at least it should be.

Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason. This is not the time for big blocks of text that derail the reader’s attention and train of thought. This is not the time to establish part of the setting (which you should’ve done as we were entering the location) or reinforce a character’s personal appearance (which you should’ve done when we were meeting them the first or second time). When we hunker down for a scene, think of it as an express train that makesvery selective stops. It should stop for things that are important to the plot, first and foremost. If that food fight is going to happen in the middle of the scene, then, yeah, by all means stop the dialogue. If the mean girl comes to harass everyone, then include it.

But there’s a time and place for all sorts of other distracting information, and in the middle of a scene usually isn’t it. By being selective and figuring out the right time to drop information on your reader, you are gaining control over your prose. The more writers practice, the more organized they become. They realize that there’s a natural ebb and flow to good writing and that it’s perfectly fine, desirable even, to be strategic in handling where and how you introduce different character and plot elements. For now, you should be vigilant about not disrupting a piece of dialogue’s train of thought. That’s an easy fix and it helps instill good writing habits.

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  1. Julia Tomiak’s avatar

    This is perfect for a scene I’m editing this morning! I realized that my character lapsed into a train of thought and then, three sentences later, answered another character’s question. The thoughts totally interrupted the give and take of the dialogue. Great post Mary to confirm my suspicious- move those thoughts elsewhere! Thanks!

  2. claudia’s avatar

    Wow! this is a great post, thanks!! It´s so wonderful because it seems to be giving me greenlight to go emotionally crazy with my characters. My story has drama and confrontation from the first pages and i was kinda afraid that i was overdoing it, but i see that I´m on the right direction. I especially love the idea of the story being dialogue or the dialogue being the story because it has so much to do with how i write. Thanks for showing me that i´m on the right track!

  3. stacey Woods’s avatar

    Great post. Good timing. I needed this today.

  4. Kelsey’s avatar

    Great post. I wholeheartedly agree.

    I’m reading a book right now where the characters always seem to be eating when they’re having a conversation. In between tense questions and revealing answers, I have to watch them blow on their soup to cool it, reach for another slice of pie, and sweep up the crumbs from the tablecloth. The author is trying to avoid two talking heads, but I feel like I’m on a cooking show.

    One mistake I think a lot of authors make is they misinterpret the old adage “show by doing”. It’s supposed to mean you should showcase your characters or move the plot forward through meaningful action. For example, your character shows she is impetuous by storming the castle wall with nothing but a knife and her lucky socks. However, sometimes authors think they their characters need to do something, anything, while they have a conversation. Like you say, it ends up being distracting.

    I’m guilty of skimming a page until I see those lovely quotation marks. I’ve also made this mistake myself, and I’m working to avoid it.

    Thanks again for the post!

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