NaNoWriMo Tip #17: Action In the Dialogue

Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of...
Sir John Gilbert’s 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare, containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare’s plays. Since the artist died in 1897, this work is now in the public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every year I teach Shakespeare, one student invariably asks the following question:  Why does Shakespeare not write stage directions in his plays?  The answer to this question is always the same: If you will examine his dialogue, you will find that he does.

For example, in Hamlet Act 1.1 we have this exchange:

BERNARDO: Who’s there?

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

BERNARDO: Long live the king!

FRANCISCO: Bernardo?


FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.

BERNARDO: ‘Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.

FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.

In this opening scene, we know a few things about these character’s actions and a little bit about how at least one of them feels.  Francisco does not see Bernardo well and asks him to “stand and unfold” himself.  It is probably dark out, also evidenced by Bernardo’s line “‘Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed”.  Francisco feels “sick at heart” and is happy to be relieved of duty.  Stage directions abound.

In prose writing, dialogue can be either bogged down by “he said/she said” or with no designation of which character is speaking at all, which will thoroughly confuse a reader.  Dialogue can be used to further the action and to describe what is happening physically in the scene through the actual dialogue or through designating what each character is doing in the designations.

If you do this, it makes for a much better dialogue experience for your readers and helps you get through passages of dialogue that would be otherwise boring or plodding.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

2 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Tip #17: Action In the Dialogue

  1. Good points, Roger. Dialogue can also be a way of introducing back story or explain something without using a whole paragraph or block of text which, can bog down the action. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this post, dialog is one area where my writing is always weak. This gives me something to consider and keep in mind.

    You know I’ve read much of Shakespeare’s works and performed portions of them; while I have little trouble following it (unlike many who get bogged down in unfamiliar words) your specific point of how the stage directions are written into the work like this never consciously occurred to me. I’m fairly confident it didn’t come up in my classes.

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