I read an article the other day about dialogue and blocking. I have since lost track of it, but its premise struck me: dialogue in a narrative is not the same as dialogue in a movie. It’s simple, but profound, and it’s something I often overlook since I experience stories so often through both film and book.
First off, a couple definitions. Dialogue is the collection of words characters say— hi, how are you, where’s my cat, and so forth. Blocking fills the gaps in the conversation, most notably answering this question: who is speaking right now? The simplest blocking is a dialogue tag. “Find me a stick,” he said. “This is space, I don’t have a stick,” she replied. But ending or beginning every line of dialogue with ‘[pronoun] said/cried/etc.’ can get boring. As you seek to spice it up a little, or as your characters move while they speak, you can put action as blocking instead of a tag. “By all my calculations, Sergeant Roberts actually needs a stick.” The robot scratched its titanium head. “Maybe a candlestick?”
In a script, for film or stage, blocking tells the actor what to do, what emotions they should portray. Here a frown, there a shrug, perhaps now it’s time for a tango? You see that blocking on the screen as you hear the actor’s lines. The two are simultaneous.
Books, on the other hand, can never achieve that. You can only write one sentence at a time— even if you break the sentence in two parts to put some blocking in, the words and the actions don’t happen simultaneously. The reader’s imagination, however, fills this in. Many times, in fact, I’ve read along and found myself imagining faces or gestures the character should be making, based on the words she was saying. Because the writer didn’t want to chop up the character’s words, that blocking never saw the page.
My point is, the dialogue/blocking mix in film is different from the dialogue/blocking mix in books. But the simultaneous stuff isn’t actually the thing. Books and verbal storytelling have another advantage that movies cannot use effectively: the character’s actual thoughts and emotions.
This varies depending on style and viewpoint. Perhaps you really enjoy cinematic style in your writing, and decide never to include a character’s thoughts or emotions unless you can say it out loud or convey it through poetry of description. Perhaps you prefer first person, and you’re inside the head so deeply the character’s thoughts are almost louder than their actions and speech. Perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle, or you’re trying to figure it out yourself. This is something you might have to think about: how much does your narrative play a part in your dialogue?
When you describe a scene, it’s easy to include the character’s views. They see a Gothic cathedral— they think it’s boring. (Another character would think it was exciting.) They see a crashed car and they’re filled with compassion. (Another character would judge if the car was salvageable.) The character sees something, and their reaction to it colors their description. Someone’s not going to describe something clinically if they think it’s disgusting.
When you’re writing dialogue, however, it’s too easy to let it slip into a verbatim record. She said, it said, she replied, it exclaimed. (This is apparently a conversation with a toaster or something. I don’t know.) She shrugged. It dinged. She pulled out the toast. It cooled. (Yep, toaster.) The dialogue is there, the tags are there, and the blocking is there— everything you would need for a cinematic adaptation of this scene is right there.
Where’s the narrative?
The narrative is what you can’t see or hear. What is the viewpoint character smelling? Touching? Tasting? These are the senses, but it’s also about what the viewpoint character is thinking. What are its thoughts, its emotions? (Let’s be honest, this scene is from the toaster’s viewpoint.) The emotions color the words and actions of a character, but imperfectly. You will never get, onscreen, the depth you can find in a book. Why not? Because it doesn’t have the narrative.
Because your book is more than just a movie waiting to be made, it’s worthwhile to put that narrative in there. It’s your job to add layers to the main character, through their thoughts and emotions. They do one thing, but they want to do the exact opposite. They imagine a scenario, then discard the idea and decide to play it safe. All you ever see onscreen is the brief frown or the too-chipper smile, but in a book you don’t have to guess what it means. In a book, you get to tell the story in a much more complex way than any movie can.
Try it out. As I said, maybe this isn’t your style and you will never use it again— still, try it. Perhaps this is your style and you just haven’t figured it out yet— try it. You aren’t required to add narrative to your dialogue. It’s just nice to think that, if this is something prose writers can do that script writers can’t, we might as well use it. They won’t mind, and our writing just gets better. So try it. Have fun.