Writing Help

Balancing Exposition, Action, and Dialogue

This blog post will be looking at balance within creative writing, focusing on exposition, action, and dialogue. Each element is needed to make your story great, but having too much of either can have detrimental effects.

Exposition

Exposition is a literary device that introduces essential background information about characters, settings, and plot elements.

Pros

  • It helps your plot become clear to your readers.
  • It provides information.

Cons

  • It is tedious when overused.
  • It usually ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’.

Tips

  • Only include what readers need to know when they need to know it.
  • Try using dialogue and action to show your exposition.
    • A good example of this might be a flashback.
  • Spread the exposition throughout the story.
  • A compelling description can give a great deal of information without being boring.

Example – 

This example introduces the setting and tells the reader about the role of the main character. 

Accident and Emergency was as busy as usual. 

Steven dodged nurses and gurneys as he made his way through the corridors. A hundred urgent conversations filled his mind. He, however, focused on the light at the end of the corridor. The ambulance bay.

To get the best cases, he ran. That was how a student doctor like Steven McCarthy excelled. 

The crisp breeze stung his face as he pushed his way outside to meet the incoming emergency. 

The ambulance door opened, and the white noise ceased.

– The Fatal Favour by Rachel Naughton

Action

Action creates movement in your story. It shows your readers what is happening. There are a few different ways you can write action, and it can get description heavy if you’re not careful. This aspect of writing includes:

  • What a character is doing.
  • What a character is feeling.
  • How a setting feels.
    • This is different to the information your reader needs to know about the setting. It’s more about how the setting makes your characters feel or how it affects them.

Pros

  • Compelling descriptions draw readers in.
  • Great for visualising what is happening.
  • Action helps the pacing of your story.
  • Can replace exposition.
    • Eg. Use action and description to show how a character feels rather than dialogue that says ‘I feel sad’. 

Cons

  • Too much description can be laborious.
  • Characters appear stagnant if a reader has limited time ‘with’ the characters.
    • Readers cannot connect emotionally with the characters they don’t spend time with.

Tips

  • Diversify — use all five senses in descriptions.
  • Don’t just describe what’s happening; show how it impacts your characters.
  • Have action and description that works with the dialogue in your story.
    • This can be through expanding on action beats and dialogue tags, letting the reader see how people feel about what has been said.
  • Spread the action throughout the story to help the pacing.

Example

This example shows characters’ actions to the reader, specifically what the characters are feeling and going through.

The paramedics pulled the gurney from the ambulance. On the bed was a man with a mass of dark hair. His eyes had a far off look, and his breathing was ragged. If this was an improvement to his earlier state, Steven dreaded to think how bad his condition had been before.  

The ambulance door slammed, and Steven looked up. 

He saw her—a flash of green eyes and red hair. Eve Griffin. The paramedics faded to the background giving way to her. 

He remembered the last time he had seen her. 

Her bloodshot eyes wouldn’t meet his. She clenched her jaw and pulled at the loose threads on the cuffs of her cardigan.

– The Fatal Favour by Rachel Naughton

Dialogue

Giving life to characters is important because this is where your readers will begin to empathise, sympathise, or identify with them. Their words and how they say them are integral to this.

Both dialogue and action are important, as it’s where your plot really lives; in your characters’ words and actions. 

Pros

  • Your readers are able to emotionally connect with your story
  • Your plot has higher stakes with characters your readers can relate to.

Cons

  • Dialogue on its own is monotonous and leads to a story without depth.
  • Actions and mannerisms can speak louder than words.
  • Dialogue focuses on one or two characters at a time.
  • Excessive dialogue can be confusing to follow.

Tips

  • Use dialogue tags when you must, but don’t overuse them.
  • Make the dialogue fit the character’s personality.
  • Use dialogue to show different sides of your character.
  • Dialogue can help clarify plot points — if you do it subtly.
  • Characters can often describe things with more impact than the narrative.

Example

This dialogue shows more of the characters through their speech, and is in conjunction with their actions, they come alive and we understand them a little more.

‘You didn’t think to tell me?’ she asked. ‘We go to uni next week, Steve. I’ve been looking at flats, and I’ve booked viewings!’

Steven glared past her at him. James Rogers, his former best friend. 

‘Don’t look at him. At least he told me. If he hadn’t, I would have been screwed.’

‘It wasn’t for him to tell. He had no idea what I was going to do… I might have gone to Manchester with you… I didn’t know yet.’

‘Of course, you knew.’ Eve strode over to Steven, pushing him as if to punctuate the words. ‘You were always going to accept Oxford. That’s why you never told me that you got in.’

Steven grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her towards him. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose you. I love you.’

Eve pulled herself out of his arms. ‘The thing is, Steven, if you had told me the truth, you wouldn’t have lost me.’ She turned around and walked away. Rogers followed. 

– The Fatal Favour by Rachel Naughton

Balance

In the cons for every single category, there is the fact that every aspect of storytelling becomes monotonous on its own. Together, action, dialogue, and exposition create well-rounded creative writing. 

Action and dialogue work well together to create characters that move you. The exposition brings depth, clarity, and understanding that some nifty dialogue or a compelling description can’t. 

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