Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Big Reveals Shouldn’t Happen In A Conversation

STATUS: Gosh, it was too gorgeous outside to work. What the heck. It’s January. I need it to snow so I don’t want to skip work!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? RIGHT DOWN THE LINE Gerry Rafferty

One of the problems of having blogged for so long, since 2006 if you can believe it, is that I often feel like I’m repeating myself. When I mentioned this to an agent friend of mine who also blogs, she said that I simply can’t worry about it.

I think she’s right. So I’ve probably blogged on this topic before but what the heck, it’s worth saying again.

A novel’s plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters.

(Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE might be the one exception. But even at closer look, you can see that Rice didn’t fall into that trap. Even though that novel is basically one long conversation, the vampire narrates scenes as if they were actually happening so there is sense of immediacy, action, and event plotting to carry the novel.)

We see this a ton in fantasy manuscripts but hey, it’s not limited to that genre. Recently, I’ve seen this structure in a lot of young adult samples we’ve been reading.

By the way, established writers can fall into this trap–usually when they are on deadline and simply trying to get the story on the page.

Take a moment to evaluate your own novel. How many times do you have characters sitting down and having a conversation? If it’s a lot, you might want to start rethinking your “plot”!

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42 Responses

  1. Kristin Laughtin said:

    My first thought was “Luke, I am your father” seems an apparent contradiction, but 1) that’s a movie, so the rules are a little different, and 2) even if Darth Vader says it outright, there is a big fight going on as the culmination of several plot arcs throughout the story. They’re not just talking heads.

    I love writing dialogue and this is something I’ve always had to watch out for, so thanks for this post. It’s better to have them doing something by sitting, and for at least some of the other plot details to come out in other ways.

  2. Anonymous said:

    Since “big reveals” often consist of someone revealing to the protagonist what s/he doesn’t already know, conversation is a place wehre “big reveals” are likely to happen.

  3. Imelda said:

    LOL, Kristin L, I felt a bit the same. What? No talking?

    But I don’t think that’s what she meant. That scene in Star Wars is not a conversation, essentially. It’s a big fight scene. Yes, the reveal is spoken and that then turns everything on its head, but it is presented in the midst of a full-on action scene and his response is also in action (when he lets go and falls). It’s not the same as if Darth Vader sat Luke down and gave him a cup of tea and told him he was his Dad.

    I think this warning is worth hearing mulitple times, especially if you (like me) like big, complicated back-stories. It can be so tempting to have page after page of exposition and kid yourself that it isn’t a dump because people are talking. Gotta make sure that talking is pulling its weight in the novel as a whole.

    Much food for thought on a Wednesday morning!

  4. Rin said:

    I think that’s one of the problems when you’ve got some considerable world-building to do and an info dump is imminent. I try to chip info down into smaller pieces and spread it out among the chapters, but it takes a looot of whittling down and revising and taking out all the unnecessary bits to finally get it right.

  5. Peter G. James Sinclair said:

    Hmmm –

    I’m in the middle of adding the finishing touches to Angels In Darned Socks & Patched Trousers which is centred in the slums of Sydney Australia amidst the depression and 2nd world war years. Now because much of the information was drawn from my dad speaking into a handheld cassette player some years back, he has the habit of using one-liners. My challenge now is to expand that conversation.

  6. Kelley said:

    Hmmm…well I don’t believe I have fallen into this trap but I’m going to have to go back and take a look. Thanks for posting on this (even if it was ‘again’) 🙂

  7. Dominique said:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m knee deep in revisions of a fantasy right now, so it’s actually very well timed to my eyes. I’ll be on the look out to make sure my characters do more than just talk.

  8. Mystery Robin said:

    Kristen, could you please expand on this? Are you saying that any big reveal should happen in the course of action, and no talking? Or are you saying that all conversations should involve some sort of secondary action to keep them interesting?

    I know you have more to say on this. 😉 I would love to hear it.

  9. Selene said:

    Like a previous commenter, I’m a bit confused by this post. Some clarification maybe?

    A lot of novels in some genres are heavily focused on dialog–that is where the tension and the changes takes place. (Like e.g. traditional mysteries where the detective talks to the suspects, or romance, where the H&H interact in large part through dialog.) So I’m guessing you’re not saying dialog is bad? What distinction are you making with “conversation”?


  10. Wendy Chen said:

    I agree with Selene that some genres are heavily focused on dialogue, and I’m also a little confused by this. Some clarification would be really helpful. 🙂

  11. Ellen said:

    I agree that “a novel’s plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters.” But I do think it’s perfectly acceptable for the big reveal to come out in dialogue. It just has to be handled with finesse.

    The big no-no, in my humble opinion, is putting exposition in dialogue. It’s one of the most common mistakes I see from new writers.

  12. RachelMaryBean said:

    I’m going to assume you mean this in an ‘all talk, no action’ kind of way- which totally applies to what I’m working on right now. Thanks for the tip! I’m going to go back over my WIP with this in mind.

  13. Misha Gericke said:

    That is something that I pay attention to when I write, since it can be tempting to have the characters talk it out. On the other hand, I think I’ve managed to put enough movement into the story.

  14. Jenny Maloney said:

    I have found the exception to the rule: John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I am not kidding when I say that *every single scene* is a group of spies sitting together (which is tense enough, I suppose, considering their occupation and you don’t know who is listening) and talking about stuff that has happened in the past. What kills me is that the one really action-y scene was so modified in the movie as to be un-action-fied.

    But it’s Le Carre, right? And Gary Oldman in the movie — it’s a thing of beauty.

  15. Julie Daines said:

    Great post. I just want to comment on the opening disclaimer that you’ve blogged so long you’re starting to repeat yourself.

    I don’t think you need to worry about that. Not all followers have been reading from day one, and I’m sorry to say, we can’t remember what we read a year ago on a blog! You’re safe.

  16. Eric said:

    This is a movie example, but I think writing is writing. I recently watched Margin Call which is a fictionalized portrayal of how one institution kicked off the financial meltdown with irresponsible trading.

    It was almost entirely people sitting around and talking. It was fantastic.

  17. Alaina said:

    I think I have one scene in my story that’s just people sitting around talking and drinking mugs of tea. It bugged me to write; I wanted other things to happen. But my characters were exhausted and one of them was explaining quite a few lies he’d just been caught in, so tea and sitting it was.

    I can’t imagine an entire novel like that. Conversation’s fine, sure, but it’s better when one character storms off into the woods, or it’s in between learning to ride a horse, or something else. Action needs to have its place.

    Though, now I’m going to go through it again to make sure I have things balanced well…

  18. Anonymous said:

    I always thought dialogue should either be used to move the story forward or tell something important about the story. It’s a tool, it’s not supposed to be the entire novel.

    And yet I see what you posted about all the time, and I see it in “published” novel excerpts on fictionwise and allromanceebooks. Most of the time, from what I see with the ratings, a large majority of readers don’t seem to know the difference and they don’t seem to mind. As long as there’s a fluffy kitten or a basket of puppies, readers eat it up and pay no attention to how dialouge is written. I won’t get into the dumbing down of fiction in our society, even though this is what it is. But I do think that standards have dropped and most readers don’t know the difference. If you think I’m blowing it out of proportion, go to the web sites I mentioned above and look for yourself. Check out the excerpts for bestselling romane novels or sci-fi novels. Sad, but interesting.

  19. Susan Spann said:

    Kristin, I think your friend is correct. Not only do readers forget what they’ve seen (and refreshing certain lessons is always worthwhile) but your readership cycles over a multi-year period, and not everyone will read the entire archive. Say what’s on your mind and you’ll not only find yourself blogging more, people will appreciate hearing your take on whatever is going on in your part of the industry.

  20. Carmen said:

    1 — Anne Mini cycles through the same subjects in her blog. I eat it up. She adds new things, new examples. I love examples. (Can we have an example?)

    2 — I’ve read all the comments in search of some clarification and I think the second comment from Imelda and several similar afterward summed it up for me: “But I don’t think that’s what she meant. That scene in Star Wars is not a conversation, essentially. It’s a big fight scene. Yes, the reveal is spoken and that then turns everything on its head, but it is presented in the midst of a full-on action scene and his response is also in action (when he lets go and falls). It’s not the same as if Darth Vader sat Luke down and gave him a cup of tea and told him he was his Dad.”

    So … the point is that, there must be tension of some kind beyond the conversation in order for the dialogue to be effective during a “big reveal.” That can involve action or other more nuanced approaches, but for many writers, action is the safest bet. Something must be happening and that something has to matter. Yes?

  21. Seven said:

    I agree with Susan Spann. Not only does your readership change, but it is also possible your opinions or views could change over time. For example, do you have the same opinion about people querying self published books now as compared to five years ago? What other things might have changed in the industry? What hasn’t changed in the industry?

    Current information, even if repeated, is more valuable than old information that may or may not be still accurate.

  22. Sam Wood said:

    For the Futurama fans:

    “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! THAT MAKES ME FEEL ANGRY!!”

  23. Ebony McKenna. said:

    One of my writer friends gave me a lightbulb moment:
    Feeling, Action, Dialogue.

    FAD makes sure something is actually happening in each scene to move the story forward.

    Also – in my crit group we often end up repeating advice or techniques because we’re all at different stages in our careers and we’re all processing things at a different rate.

    @Sam Wood – love that!!!!!

  24. Jolene Irons said:

    This is actually refreshing to hear. I’ve always disliked writing dialouge so of course I was avoiding it. I knew that I needed more of it though. Now I’m searching for that happy medium.

  25. Liz Heinecke said:

    Interesting point. I’m working on a MG historical fantasy and have been struggling with how to relay the history of the setting in a more interesting way. I don’t want to do the Eragon thing and write a long synopsis of the mythology, but also don’t want to have one character sitting in a chair relating the entire history of the “world” to the character who has just arrived there. I’m still a little stumped.

  26. Imelda said:

    Carmen said:
    So … the point is that, there must be tension of some kind beyond the conversation in order for the dialogue to be effective during a “big reveal.” That can involve action or other more nuanced approaches, but for many writers, action is the safest bet. Something must be happening and that something has to matter. Yes?

    Yes, Carmen, that is what I meant and I think what Kristen was talking about. Some novels are almost entirely dialogue. Some don’t suit big action scenes. But the good ones are never composed of people talking ABOUT the story, which I think is what Kristen is talking about. Donald Maas says that if a scene doesn’t have conflict, it isn’t actually a scene. People have to have goals and encounter conflict. Whether that’s bad guys with guns or people who slap them down verbally, or just people who are coming from a completely different place, it has to be there. And if that conflict is mainly expressed in dialogue, it had better be dialogue with layers of subtext that is really contributing to the story. Not stuff that sounds like a glorified synopsis.
    That’s the point, I think.

  27. Tony DiMeo said:

    I think this is why Reiner and Sorkin developed the walk and talk that is featured so prominently in Sorkin shows like the ‘West Wing’. There was too much “talking” and too little movement or action on the characters’ part so they decided to give the actors something to do to keep scenes from feeling too static. Maybe the same applies to novels.

    But in a dialogue heavy novel, there will inevitably be scenes where characters are sitting down in discussion. How do you fill those scenes with conflict? Or do you strive to eliminate ALL of those scenes from your ms?

  28. RobC said:

    Dialogue is action.

    A “big reveal” sounds like it should be in a game show or in a performance by The Man The Call Reveen, not in a novel at all.

    How about more novels with pages of exciting dialogue and without big reveals, please?

  29. Anonymous said:

    Harry Potter is full of scenes where the reveal happens in dialogue. Check out the endings of book 2 and book 3.

    In Twilight, a conversation goes on and on for forty pages in a car.

    So much of Girl With A Dragon Tattoo is about two people having a long conversation–some of the dialogue in major paragraph blocks.

    So…while I agree with Kristin…famous books break this rule all the time and make money. The reason? Readers don’t care a lot of the time, writers and book professionals do.

  30. Rita Elizabeth said:

    Thank you for this post, Kristin. I for one, can always benefit from hearing something from you twice–or more! Please don’t worry about being repetitious. This blog is wonderful, and THANK YOU FOR IT.

  31. Stephanie [Luxe Boulevard Bridal] said:

    This is great to read. We have sort of been discussing this in our critique group, almost at length. Novel’s aren’t just people developing relationships. They are comprised of the events, the surroundings, feeling and movement. I fear I have, too, fallen guilty of revealing too much through quick conversations sometimes. One more thing to be on the lookout for as I edit–AGAIN!

  32. Nancy Hinchliff said:

    Kristin, I’m so glad you posted on this particular issue, whether you’ve written about it before or not. I’m doing a final re-write on my memoir, Operatic Divas and Naked Irishmen and am finding I focus more on dialogue than plot because I am a non-fiction writer and developing a strong plot is difficult for me.

  33. Sara Creasy said:

    Here’s a simple example that I think illustrates the point Kristin was making: You need your character to find out she was adopted at birth. You could have someone tell her, or you could have her break into a locked desk and discover her real birth certificate or some old photos. The first is dialogue, the second is action.

  34. Henri said:

    Did Heminyway use too much dialogue? I kinda think he found a good balance between dialogue and action and (according to critics) he paved the way for the modern novel. In the hands of the right writer, challenging and striking dialogue can make a story.

  35. Laney said:

    Wow, I’ve never really thought about that before. I will have to look at the story I am working now to see if I just have talking heads. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

  36. Shallee said:

    I know this post is from last week, but I just wanted to pipe in and say thanks! I had an “aha/duh” moment and realized this was the undefinable problem I had in a few chapters of my own book. I was able to fix them, and even blogged about the process because I found it so helpful! So even if you were repeating something here, it helped a lot to hear it. 🙂

  37. Juliana L. Brandt said:

    This is probably some of the best advice I’ve heard lately. One of my critters made this comment in a couple places in my WIP and I think I finally understand what she meant. Thank you 🙂

  38. nate said:

    Excellent comments here. I especially agree with Sara Creasy’s comment.

    I wonder though, what about narrative tension between two characters within a big reveal? So long as there’s enough head-butting “tension” to loop in the audience, then is that OK? What if the big reveal is between a protagonist and his antagonist when he finds out the antagonist isn’t the person he once thought? Dramatically speaking, isn’t that better face to face? But I get Sarah’s point, which really illustrates how a reveal can be more exciting to an audience done more organically.

    And for an FYI, in playwriting, that sort of writing defect is called a “listening post character.”

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