Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dialog vs. Narrative

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.


William Topek said...

Exceedingly well-written article, if I may say. I appreciate how you don't tell the writer what to do, but suggest what to avoid. And I agree that anchoring is so important. I lose patience if I have to keep track of who's speaking in a page and a half of straight dialogue!

Ron Adams said...

Thanks, William. I appreciate that very much. and for what it's worth, I am enjoying the daylights out of your novel and will be reviewing it here shortly. Well done!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the great post! This addresses one of my continual struggles. Getting that pacing right and avoiding that proverbial "middle sag" in my WIP.

I think a healthy balance between dialogue and narrative goes a long way in keeping the reader/writer relationship alive.

Marta Stephens said...

Good one, Ron.

Balance between dialogue and narrative is terribly essential, but so is rhythm. That wonderful beat, the pulse of the sentence that only the right number of syllables can create.

As much as I love dialogue, I too write my share of narration and to be honest, I probably work harder at the narration than the dialogue because it has to be tight.

One problem I have with some writer’s narrative is that if not checked, it becomes too inflated, too heavy on description and like you said, it drags the story to a screeching halt. In stead of volume, use action words to make the narrative sing, and beats to get rid of unwanted tags.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Well said, Ron. One technique I use to see if whole segments flow for dialogue and narrative is to read aloud to myself. My family may think I'"m nuts sometimes, but if I "stutter when I'm reading a passage, it's likely a reader will do the same. It's a great smoothing technique.

It's also interesting that while I worked extra hard on starting out my first five novels with "grab 'em quick hooks" without too much narrative, and I did get some awards for these, that the most acclaim I'm getting so far is for the one book where I said, "to hell with all that," and I just let myself go. There is a bit of poetic description describing Sam Moore's morning in the first chapter of Healey's Cave, although the pace picks up fast and there is a mystery introduced in that chapter as well. But I thought I'd throw off the restrictions of all the "rules" I'd learned, and voila, an approach that got me an actual "literary" award seemed to appeal to the judges.

It's so weird. But that's what's fun. Playing with the options, tossing them around, and even straying off course once in a while. It keeps us busy, and sometimes offers a surprise!