I suppose what I'm talking about is making everything count, making it all mean
something, and not be just dressing. Though dressing can be
many things as well. (I'm not expressing myself well because I'm not sure what I'm driving at.)
Stage business and action beats, as non-verbal communication, are the same thing, aren't they? Mine's just a theatre term.
. Yes, that's it. Something about how the dialogue and the body language combine to mean more than the sum of their parts. That's what I'm asking about, wondering if any of you have a considered approach
to this kind of thing.
I'd been peering through the crack in the curtains for half the morning when she finally turned up. She shuffled up to the door in that way she had, all knees and elbows. And then she paused. It was the pause that made me sit up. It wasn't like any pause I'd seen before, not a dither or a nervous twitch or a bit of misdirection, but a complete cessation of activity, like a toy robot winding down to a stop. I was convinced she would never start again. And in that moment she seemed to be someone else entirely, a hole in the world where a moment before there'd been a person. The world wrapped around that pause until I fancied my own heart would stop. And the pause stayed with me. That night as I lay between the sweaty sheets of the creaking hotel I thought of that pause. And even now, as I write this, three decades later, it's the pause that I think of. In that howling moment of quiet, she was who she really was. She was the pause and the pause was her.
Show don't tell as literary advice is way overrated.
Ah, the pause in the quote is a summarisation of a past event, not in the now. That's the difference between whether it can be a tell and appropriate. In the now of a scene, though, the pause is better as a show. Showing the pause can also indicate the underlying subtext of the moment as it happens.
Stage business, dialogue beats, and action beats are subtly different.
Stage business is the form of blocking and filling space on a stage or screen because small movements are too small to be noted by the audience. They are non-verbal communication, but the bigger things that use the setting to show or hide.
Dialogue beats are usually short actions/activities used as a speech tag to do two things -- indicate the speaker in that paragraph without using 'said' (especially if there are a lot of 'said' said already).
Action beats are a different breed. They include dialogue, but this action drives the story forward, gives introspection that progresses the understanding of the character, and indicates the physicality of the next possible action (like foreshadowing when fists are clenched and the thoughts are short, sharp and aggressive).
Some writers call every action a beat, but not every action is more than activity (which may show characterisation or something else, but doesn't connect to/with a story event).
Do I have a considered approach to subtext when writing?
Oh, my, yes. The dialogue may appear to be all there is, but the POV character's action/introspection with the dialogue may say something more.
“Drink,” Aventi said. They’d need it.
The subtext behind the thought is foreshadowing, even though there's no action there.
“Pen and quill, do my will, mark my message within the seal.” She waggled thumb and forefinger as if she held the old-fashioned ink-quill in her hand.
That's an action, something the reader could imitate, but which also indicates the use and possibilities and reality of magic. Exposition hidden in an action beat associated with dialogue. Subtext: you can do this, too -- and the character is also showing off a bit, despite her building trepidation.
“You can’t let yourself get drawn in until the guide arrives.” Where was the bloody guide? “Hold hands,” she yelled.
Dialogue that implies action from the way the words are shaped, and progresses the story. The subtext here is fear and loss of control.
I love subtext and it's only taken years to find the many examples of how to use it in stories. It's not just dialogue in opposition to introspection, although that's one part. It's also actions that lie, activities that mean more than what's presented, actions and events that are at odds with the goal, and they all say more than the words on the page. A bit like an extended metaphor, but that suits only this moment in this story with these characters.
And I'm still learning just how deep subtext can go. There's a warning, there: too deep, and the reader is lost, or won't understand.