How to Write a Damn Good Dance Scene
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I attended the panel you were part of at PAX on how to write a damn good fight scene and your advice (and your panel mates?) was very helpful. I managed to write myself into a corner where I was forced to describe my (immortal) characters at a Ball without any knowledge of how Ballroom dancing works. I've looked into videos and the like but it hasn't really helped, any advice on how to write a damn good dance scene?
So, it sounds like you’ve started your research into writing a dance scene by looking at videos, which is great! That will be really helpful for learning how the dances you’re using work and look, as well as understanding the community and history that surrounds them. It might also be useful to read some interviews or chat with some dancers about dancing, both so you can harness some of their passion for your book, and so you can figure out how your characters might think about it. And, of course, taking a dance class could also help, so that you can make a proper sensory experience of it.
That being said, when it comes down to it, executing a dance scene—like a fight scene, or any action scene, really—isn’t really about the dancing at all. It’s far more about the conversation the characters are having through the medium of the action. After all, the physical actions of your characters are really just another form of expression! Almost like a secondary conversation, underlying the primary verbal conversation—albeit one usually more emotional than intellectual in content. Which means that the most important thing to figure out about your dance scene isn’t how the dance works, but rather, what the characters’ intentions are—and how your characters can express them through their dance-oriented interaction.
To help you get started, I’ve outlined below the three basic steps in writing character-intense action scenes, from brainstorming, to sketching it out, to execution. I hope it helps!
Part 1: Identify Character Intentions
So, one of the first things you likely think about when sketching out a new scene of any variety, is who the characters are and what they want. Which is awesome! Because really, once you get that down, the rest is cake. Or, if not precisely cake, at least more cakelike. See, all things flow from the characters’ intentions. If Character A wants to eat a magic cupcake, and Character B wants the magic cupcake for herself? That’s great tension right there! And fodder for some awesome dramalicious conflict. All you need to figure out then is:
- What each character knows about the magic cupcake (and, of course, what there is to know about the magic cupcake).
- What each character knows about the other character’s intentions regarding said magic cupcake.
- What each character would do to get said magic cupcake.
- How each character would react to the other character’s actions regarding said magic cupcake.
- What each character wants to do with the magic cupcake should they win it in the end.
Or, basically, just make sure to nail down the flow of information, intention, and interaction between your characters on a high level.
Got all that? Great! Now that you know what your characters are about, you can start building your scene. In this case, a dance scene.
Part 2: Action as Expression
Just about everything in a book is about expression. I mean, dialogue is for sure obvious about expression—that’s expression that comes straight out of the character’s mouth. But description is also about expression—I mean, it’s cliché, but why do you think it always seems to be raining when things go from bad to worse? Voice, word choice, sentence length, narrative distance, pacing—just about everything you put in your book is a tool for further expression. Including, of course, one of the most influential tools at your disposal (and one key to writing any dance or fight scene): your character’s actions.
If crossing your arms is a micro form of nonverbal communication, the actions in a dance or fight scene are macro forms. And, of course, like all nonverbal communication, you can use it to double-down on what is being said in the dialogue, contradict it, or complicate it (he says he’s excited, but his actions say nervous). (See also: 41 Flavors of Nonverbal Communication)
And dancing? Dance is rich with nonverbal communication opportunities. A character could do a move rather harder or faster than necessary, press close or linger seductively, squeeze someone’s hand in reassurance, lay their head down in trust, instigate a difficult move that forces the other character to work really hard, ignore the move the other character is trying to do and just do their own thing, hold the other character at a rigid distance, or even just the basic step-on-their-toes-“accidentally” (I’m just such a bad dancer! What? Oh yes! They are steel-toed, thanks for asking.). . . Really, the options are endless.
But the idea is, this dance—or whatever action—is acting as an extension of your character’s intentions.
Part 3: Physical Expression of Intentions
I’d start by sketching out the “conversation.” Now, I say conversation, because this doesn’t have to be a verbal thing at all, though I think dialogue and action scenes go together like hot chocolate and a snowstorm. And personally? I think starting out by sketching the dialogue is probably the easiest way to go. But, say you hate dialogue. That’s okay! All you have to do is write down the interaction—the nonverbal or verbal or pseudoverbal-whatever your characters are engaging in.
Then, figure out how you could weave in dance-oriented actions in order to enhance and complicate the underlying emotions in the conversation. This can be a fantastic way to build tension, to let the reader know that there is more going on than meets the eye (particularly if a character’s nonverbal actions say something other than what they say verbally), as well as to create an intensely emotional—or even climactic—scene.
While it can sometimes seem like action scenes are just there to keep people from becoming talking heads, action has its own voice that is every bit as important—and flexible—as dialogue. So, play with it! Have fun with it. You might be surprised at all the different things you can say just by mixing up the dialogue with a little nonverbal communication.