50 Things Your Characters Can Do WHILE They Talk

Dialogue Techniques: 50 Things Your Characters Can Do WHILE They Talk #how to write dialogue #writing dialogue #what are action tags #how to use action tags

The wonderful movie Warrior has a great lesson in how to write good dialogue. In one scene, a science teacher who moonlights as a fighter talks with his wife late at night while he repairs his girls’ dollhouse furniture. This is a brilliant action that tells you so much about the kind of guy he is, and it makes their conversation about bad financial news all the more compelling.

In fiction, giving your characters something to do while they talk is one of my favorite dialogue techniques, because can also add more depth or interest to the conversation. Additionally, it opens up new ways for them to express themselves through movement and body gestures. If someone’s having an argument while he unloads the dishwasher, he might bang the pots and pans around. If she’s jogging with a friend who tells her something shocking, she might stop in her tracks. If you want to know how to write better dialogue in your novel, this is one really good way!

If all the conversations in your story consist of people sitting and looking at one another, you might want to mix it up. Here are a bunch of things your characters could be doing while they’re talking. In some cases, maybe only one person is doing the action, while in other cases, both or all of the characters may be doing it.

Some actions may underscore the conversation, and others may provide an ironic contrast to it. I made most of these things pretty normal and everyday, but some of them are more unusual. The list will probably make you think of a lot more things that could work for your characters or your story.

 

Dialogue Techniques: 50 Things Your Characters Can Do WHILE They Talk #how to write dialogue #writing dialogue #what are action tags #how to use action tags

  1. Walking the dog.
  2. Playing with a dog or cat — fetch, a laser pointer, etc.
  3. Hiking or bicycling.
  4. Folding laundry.
  5. Gardening or planting a tree.
  6. Digging a hasty grave.
  7. Shooting at a firing range.
  8. Decorating for a party, Halloween, or Christmas.
  9. Wrapping gifts.
  10. Polishing or repairing weapons or armor.
  11. Sharpening a sword or kitchen knives.
  12. Brushing or braiding hair — their own, or someone else’s.
  13. Painting their nails, or someone else’s nails.
  14. Getting dressed or undressed (or helping a kid get dressed, or trying on different outfits.)
  15. Sewing, knitting, or crocheting.
  16. Getting a tattoo. Or giving one.
  17. Counting change, and/or making rolls of dimes or quarters.
  18. Packing a bag.
  19. Going through boxes of old stuff in an attic or basement.
  20. Unpacking boxes in a new home.
  21. Washing a stain out of something.
  22. Cleaning up a mess — like spilled food or drink, an overflowing toilet, or a smashed lamp.
  23. Building or tending a fire.
  24. Playing golf or mini-golf.
  25. Playing cards.
  26. Playing basketball.
  27. Untangling a necklace or a fishing line.
  28. Lifting weights.
  29. Taking an exercise class.
  30. Cooking, baking, or grilling.
  31. Doing the dishes or putting dishes away.
  32. Painting a room.
  33. Showering.
  34. Putting on makeup.
  35. Shaving.
  36. Woodworking.
  37. Dancing.
  38. Sparring.
  39. Punching a punching bag.
  40. Grocery shopping.
  41. Restocking shelves or pricing items.
  42. Watering houseplants or feeding the fish.
  43. Giving someone a shoulder or foot massage.
  44. Going through a place searching for something.
  45. Tending to a wound, drawing blood, or giving someone a shot.
  46. Browsing in a bookstore or library.
  47. Fixing a motorcycle.
  48. Changing a tire.
  49. Changing a baby’s diaper.
  50. Collating and stapling papers.

 

My forthcoming book Blank Page to Final Draft, which takes you step by step through writing a novel, contains all kinds of help with every element of fiction. You can pre-order it now!


Blank Page to Final Draft by Bryn Donovan ebook free pdf

 

If you have any advice about combining action with dialogue, or you’ve done it in a way that worked out well, let us know in the comments. Happy writing!

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50 thoughts on “50 Things Your Characters Can Do WHILE They Talk”

  1. Brenda Kay Williams

    I love reading all you material on writing suggestions. Keep up the good work. I think it’s nice someone like you helping writers like me.

  2. I linked this list in a reply on another site to give someone an idea of what to do with dialogue. Thanks for the list. Here are two that I have used. One is a variant on getting dressed, and the other is new.
    1. A knight and his squire converse while the squire helps his knight remove his armor, bathe, and dress for the feast following a tournament.
    2. The protagonist puts sunscreen on his girlfriend’s back and legs at the beach. During their conversation, he quotes part of E.B. Browning’s ‘Sonnet from the Portuguese Number 43’ (“How do I love thee?”) – among other topics.

  3. Dear Bryn,
    Yours is such a fresh approach!

    I learn something just skimming the titles of your posts!

    How long has your blog been available?

    Wishing you every success,

    April

  4. Pingback: Writing Dialogue: Formatting and Style Questions Answered!

  5. Pingback: People Don’t Talk Like That: Mastering Dialogue - One Human Alien

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