copyright 2011 by Ron Adams
At their most basic, stories have two elements: Dialogue and Narrative. Narrative also has two main purposes: to inform the reader and to describe a person, place or thing. Funny thing is, done right, so does Dialogue. Many times the dialogue between characters can give you as much if not more information about your characters and their plight as any narrative. My editor punctuated my last novel with comment regarding this very topic, and I began to learn very quickly getting the right balance between dialogue and narrative will make all the difference in the success of your story, and your ability to entertain the readers.
Modern readers in general prefer a story that moves with a steady pace. If not, they soon get bored. But maybe the readers you are aiming at are more relaxed and cerebral and are quite at home with a slower paced tale. But which is right for you and your readers? The suggestion would be to take a careful look at books or stories similar to the type you are writing and gauge what proportion of the text is dialogue and what is narrative. Compare what you see with your own writing. It is vital that you get this right or you may find yourself falling to hard to one side or the other.
And this is where dialogue comes in. Too much and the reader can get lost and disoriented. I am a big fan of the novels of Robert B. Parker, whom my wife claims has too much dialogue in his novels. She prefers the novels of Patricia Cornwall, who seems to me to be narrative heavy. Too little dialogue and some readers can get bogged down. If your story has too much dialogue it is not unknown for readers to loose track of which character is speaking. And you need to avoid too many 'he said', 'she said'. Too much non-stop yakking from your characters can be annoying, so throw some movement or description to anchor things down. Introducing small movement activates the reader's imagination and gives them a picture to lock onto.
Imagine two characters having a heated argument. To break this up you could say something like.
A garbage truck groaned to a halt outside the open window, followed by the angry blaring of a car's horn. He turned in a snap and slammed the window shut.
This gives us movement and description, not only of the character, but of the traffic outside, which, incidentally, also echoes the turmoil going on inside.
If you find you are filling page after page with narrative, you may need to ask yourself: Does this piece of narrative add to the storyline? Would the story or plot suffer if I left it out completely? You may love to describe the start of a new day with three paragraphs of prose, but could you be equally served by simply saying something from the character's point of view? You can also use a character's dialogue to add a descriptive element. Often you simply have to be cruel to be kind and axe those sections of narrative that add nothing to the story so that your narrative/dialogue balance is right. And when you do get it right both your readers and your publisher will thank you.