Pure dialog can get confusing and even boring; it can also fail to convey the many subtleties that people communicate through means like expression and body language. This is the reason that writers often insert small actions into passages of dialog. The actions could be changes in a character’s expression, small movements or gestures, or specific tasks that the character is performing while they talk. For example:
“I don’t think we should go after her,” Sofia whispered. She shifted in her seat and closed her eyes with a sigh.
Matilde glanced at Sofia and then looked away. “Why not?”
“She decided to leave all on her own. No one made her.” Sofia shook her head and bit her lip. “She obviously doesn’t want to be here.”
“Maybe . . .” Matilde replied, looking down at her feet while she shuffled them back and forth. “But what happens when she decides she wants to be here after all and it’s too late for her to come back? Chiara tends to be pretty impulsive.”
Sofia stuck out her tongue. “We still can’t force her to do what she doesn’t want to,” she said, waving her hands.
Matilde looked up with a frown and then turned away again, wringing her hands. “We could. And maybe we should.”
Now, that passage was packed a little too full of actions—every single line of dialog was accompanied by at least one action. That’s partly because I wanted to fit as many examples as I could into one passage, but many people do write their conversation scenes this way. But why is that too many actions? Am I saying that you should never have an action to accompany every line of dialog? No. The problem isn’t the number of actions so much as it is the lack of purpose behind so many of the actions.
Let’s list the actions from the passage again:
shifted in her seat
closed her eyes
with a sigh
glanced at Sofia
and then looked away
shook her head
and bit her lip
looking down at her feet
shuffled [her feet] back and forth
stuck out her tongue
waving her hands
looked up with a frown
and then turned away again
wringing her hands
What are each of these actions supposed to convey? Why is the character performing that particular action at that point in the conversation? With some of these actions, the purpose is pretty clear. When someone closes their eyes and sighs, for instance, it’s usually a pretty good indication of weariness or irritation. Hand wringing and lip biting are decent ways to indicate nervousness or internal confliction. And frowns are pretty clear indications of unhappiness or severe confusion.
But even those examples could each have more than one meaning. As for the others, they don’t convey anything meaningful. What is the audience supposed to learn from the fact that Sofia “shifted in her seat”? Is the seat uncomfortable? Is she emotionally uncomfortable and the movement is a physical indication of that fact? Was she trying to relax or get a better view of something? There are so many reasons to shift in one’s seat that simply describing the action carries next to no meaning.
Why is it significant that Matilde looked at Sofia and then looked away? What does that mean? What does it mean that she’s looking down at her feet while shuffling them? Is her turning away after looking up with a frown supposed to tell us something about her thoughts? Because it isn’t. It might be vaguely sort-of hinting at some sort of emotional state, but it sure isn’t informing the audience of anything.
Even Sofia sticking out her tongue is confusing. There are so many ways and reasons that people stick out their tongues:
Each of these images conveys a different emotion, and yet they could all be described as someone “sticking out his or her tongue.” From the context, we could probably narrow down Sofia’s gesture to two or three of these, but it still wouldn’t be clear. Is she disgusted? Petulant? Nauseated? We just don’t know. Remember—most expressions and movements can indicate more than one emotion, thought, or state of mind. Just because you know which meaning you were trying to convey doesn’t mean that your readers will get it.
“Looks” are probably the worst category of offenders on this front. Throughout the conversations I read, characters are “looking” all over the place. They look at one another, they look at their feet, at the wall, at the table, into the distance, into the sky, at their hands, at their clothes. And most of it doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever. Beware the meaningless look!
This usually happens when a writer can tell that the conversation needs a beat or a brief lull to break up the dialog, but they don’t have anything for the characters to do to provide that break. If you need a beat but you can’t think of a meaningful movement or expression for your character, then give them something to do! In our example above, Sofia could have been trying to finish some (plot-related) paperwork while they conversed or Matilde could have already begun packing to go after Chiara. The possibilities are endless.
Give your manuscript to a friend and ask them to highlight any point where the purpose of movements or expressions was unclear or confusing. If you can’t come up with a meaningful movement to replace the vague one, then don’t be afraid to cut it out entirely.