The how of a novel: writing dialogue, description and action

You have now decided on your story which is outlined. You have created your characters and decided on a point of view. You also have your locale. You are now ready to begin writing.

Writing style cannot be taught. However, your craft of writing dialogue, description, and action can be refined. By doing so, your novel will flow more easily and be more compelling to the reader.


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  • listen to people speaking
  • only use said and asked
  • use multiple senses in description
  • be concise in descriptions
  • visualize your action scenes

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  • use character names in dialogue
  • use adverbs
  • use unnecessary words
  • describe places unnecessarily
  • use too many action scenes

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do listen to people speaking

The first rule of good dialogue is that it should sound authentic. It is critical that your characters talk the way real people do.

One way to gain a sense for this is to listen to people speaking. Do it when you are with friends at a dinner or a social gathering. Do it when you’re riding the subway and strangers sitting next to you are talking. Do it when you are at your day job. In other words, constantly listen to people talking and make notes when you can.

Do only use said and asked

Some writers are fond of tagging each character’s statement with a potent verb such as John hissed; or Mary screeched; or Dave barked. These words, often clichés, are distracting to the reader.

Moreover, if you are writing in a clear concise manner, they will be unnecessary. The reader will understand from the context that Mary is upset and angry when she encounters her husband at a restaurant with another woman. An explanation mark will get the point across much better than “Mary screeched.”

Do use multiple senses in description

As humans, we have multiple senses, not merely sight. We also hear, smell, taste, and touch. To enhance your description, use those multiple senses.

If you are describing a scene in which Mary enters a restaurant and sees her husband, John, eating with another woman, it is not enough to describe what Mary saw. She heard, for example, the sound of diners laughing and forks hitting plates. She smelled the aroma of garlic or roast duck. Use of these other senses will enhance the scene.

Do be concise in descriptions

A critical point about writing description is that less is more. In describing a character or a place, a few precise sentences with carefully selected words and precise details are best. There is no need for any more than that.

Some writers will use half a page or more in describing a character or place. They’re wasting their time. When confronted with long type blocks of description, readers often skim, thus losing the salient details.

Do visualize your action scenes

Your readers must be able to visualize the action scenes in your novel as if they were watching a movie.

Suppose a character has fallen out of a boat and is heading to toward Iguazu Falls in Argentina and you want to rescue that character by helicopter. First see it clearly in your mind. Sketch it out on paper. Only then begin to write. You cannot make it come alive for your readers unless you see it clearly yourself.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not use character names in dialogue

There may be situations in which you have to include the name of a character in the dialogue to clarify who is speaking. However, this will not happen often. For the most part, it will be obvious from the context who is speaking.

Simply present one character’s statement followed by the other. No need to include John said or Mary asked. This will make the dialogue flow smoother. Always remember dialogue is like a tennis match, i.e., back and forth. One character speaks; the other replies.

Do not use adverbs

Gertrude Stein and Edgar Pound advised Hemingway about adverbs: “Eliminate them entirely until you learn to use them judiciously.” In dialogue there is no need to use adverbs in the speech tag. For example, John said boldly. From the context and John’s words, it should be clear that he is speaking boldly.

If you feel the need to embellish John’s words, then add a narrative sentence. For example: John stood tall and stared at Mary.

Do not use unnecessary words

Good description must be precise. Adjectives often get in the way and adverbs are almost always unnecessary. As a writer, you are better to limit yourself to action sentences where possible.

For example, the masked man walked into the bank with a gun in his hand. This sentence is good. It isn’t cluttered by describing the man as average in height. Nor does the reader care that his mask was black; or that his gun was shiny. These adjectives only clutter the sentence.

Do not describe places unnecessarily

Suppose in your story that the CIA director is walking along Pennsylvania Avenue and entering the White House through the wrought iron gate. There is no need to describe what the White House looks like. Every reader will know. Doing so will only clutter your story.

Many famous writers including Graham Greene refused to describe their characters. They believed that the reader should be allowed to imagine a character in any way he chooses. And in any event, characters are described by their actions. Other familiar writers disagree. You have to decided what to do about the description of your characters. Writer’s choice. There is no correct way.

Do not use too many action scenes

Big action scenes, if written well, will be stressful for your readers and also your characters. They need a break between these scenes and your story will achieve a better pace with these breaks. Proper pacing is critical.

You should select these scenes with great care because you are not merely advancing the story. You are developing your characters. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Action is character.”


Hopefully, you have written crisp dialogue, sharp description, and some lively action scenes. Your story pacing is good. You have done several drafts, polishing, and re-polishing. You are satisfied with the finished product.

Now the hard works begins: marketing your novel.

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