Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dialogue? Narrative? Balance..

“Lots of dialogue and you risk the chance of losing the reader. She’s gotten lost trying to figure out your directions. An over abundance of narrative and the reader gets bored with wandering around the forest while you’re beautifully and hauntingly describing the trees. But a fine balance creates a map and a pair of boots for you to step into and follow along.” Mauve Wording

I’m glad Ms Wording has a handle on it. I, however, do not. Dialogue is much easier to create in my newbie opinion. Narrative, not so much. To me, narrative is information, something that supports the dialogue using description, thoughts and feelings, and movement. I don’t know if that’s a valid explanation or not? Of course dialogue advances the plot in those ways too. Hence, the balance conundrum. Often my first draft reads like a script. So does my second draft. I’m usually a teensy bit short on narrative.

The following is the dialogue from a scene in one of my favorite movies.

“This day has been real disappointing, I don't mind saying.”
“Why? Because you didn't get to kill everyone?”
“There'll come a time, boy, when you'll wish you never met me.”
“Mister, I'm already there.”
“You can see I'm in charge here.”
“I drop this stick... ...and they pick your friend up with a sponge.”
“Are you ready to die, friend?”
“&^%$ you.”
“In years, we've come from...’I regret but I have one life to give for my country’ ‘&^%$ you’?”
“Go ahead. Drop the stick. Do it.”
“Shut up, Harry.”
“We've got all the balls in the world here, man.”
“Give it up. You got nowhere to go!”
“Shoot the hostage.”
“Say goodbye, Harry.”

Can you guess what movie it is? Can you guess how many people are taking part in this scene? Can you tell the good guys from the bad? Can you guess their location? Of course you would if you were watching the movie. But what if you were reading this stretch of dialogue in a book or my first draft? No question, you’d ask for a little more information, some description of various elements, to go with the tone and rhythm of my words (if they were my words).

Narration, as far as I can tell, describes the characters, setting and action. It has the power to place a reader amidst the conflict. But too much narrative can slow the pace of a story. It must have a purpose and continue to more the story forward. My current wip is a romantic suspense. At one point in an early draft I waxed poetic for three lengthy paragraphs on a description of a backyard when I hadn’t made so much as a described a leaf or a petal in prior pages. Did I mention the scene was from the hero’s point of view? And if you knew my Chase you’d know his descriptive powers would lean toward the use of green, tree, and bush to describe his property. I love those paragraphs but they’ve been dug up and transplanted to my deleted scenes file.

How about dialogue? Dialogue advances the plot and provides information by creating action, increasing the tension and demonstrating mood or feeling. It helps create ‘real’ characters and allows the reader to listen in on their private conversations where they reveal themselves and their intentions.

I love the line: “There'll come a time, boy, when you'll wish you never met me.” Almost as much as the response - “Mister, I'm already there.”

How does one create believable dialogue? One common suggestion seemed to be to speak less, listen more. Pay attention to the conversations around you. Okay, problem. I can be silent if I’m eavesdropping but overall I’m a much better talker then a listener. If you are willing to be a conversation peeper you can learn a lot about how people speak. Most people don’t speak in full sentences but use half sentences or single word responses. There is a tone and a rhythm. They rely on body language to convey emotion. People nod or shake their heads; they speak with their hands and they use a range of facial expressions.

Of course, you ditch all those um’s and ah’s that pollute everyday conversation. Since fictional verbosity is frowned upon, tighten your dialogue and keep it brief. We’ve all had to suffer through our share of those too-much-information conversations in real life. You may not be able to escape Uncle Fred’s tale of his gallbladder attack, operation and recovery but a reader can shut a book faster then you can say ‘boring’.

It’s all about balance. It’s that simple and that complicated. I don’t know if I’m any nearer being able to accomplish that balance in my writing but I understand the need for it. Oh well, practice, practice and more practice.

In your writing what comes easily to you, the dialogue or the description? Do you enjoy writing ripe with description or hefty on dialogue?


Captain Hook said...

Karen, you sound a great deal like me. I much prefer writing (and reading) dialogue. I despise the amount of description needed in the books I write and my first drafts are almost devoid of it.

I think part of the reason is that dialogue is natural to me. I play "neighborhood mom" to a bunch of teenagers and have 5 kids of my own ranging in age from6-19, all of which makes the dialogue in my YA and Mg books come across as very real.

But I'm awful at describing things even in real life conversations, and that comes across in what I write. To me at least, it comes across as very stilted and contrived. Luckily, my critters don't think so most of the time.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Karen and Captain Hook - I'm with you on this one. My first run through contains a bit of basic info and the rest is dialogue.

Then in the 2nd and subsequent drafts, I layer in all the enhancements like description, backstory, etc.

Dialogue is easy for me. I can describe settings and things easy enough, but get jammmed up when I try to find novel ways of describing visceral reactions and body language. For example, my CP's tell me I have a tendancy to overwrite when describing how a character is sitting on a chair when the word 'draped' would suffice, etc.

I like both aspects of writing equally well except you wouldn't think I'd like describing because I have a hard time getting motivated for revisions. I'd rather be creating any day.

This is a really good post, Karen. One thing struck me though as I was reading. You said:
'overall I’m a much better talker then a listener'.

Well, thinking back to our drive to the Feb SRW mtg when I 'talked your ear off' for over 3 hrs... :)

Karen said...

I'm with you Captain Hook. Somedays I feel like I'm ruining perfectly wonderful dialogue with hokey description.

That's were critters come in very handy.

Karen said...

Hey Anita. I hear where you're coming from and I suspect practice is the only solution to our dilemna. Lots of practice and great critters.

For the record, I'm a good talker but also smart enough to listen when valuable information is being offered. ;)

Silver James said...

When I first started writing, I was suffering a bad case of the "he said/she said" syndrome. I still have to read my MS with a jaundiced eye to nip those little suckers in the bud. I'm getting better. If the "mood and tone" isn't obvious from the words, I'll add a description of facial expression or body language--another layer to the character.

Narrative is a horse of a different color. If the setting is important to the action, I tend to wax poetic setting the stage and the mood of the scene. If it isn't, I focus more on just the action and reaction of the characters.

Great post today, Karen. It came at a great time as I'm editing the first full draft of a novella.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I fall into the "I love writing Dialogue" camp. It does seem to come more easily than narrative. I especially love scenes of dialogue where the characters are arguing or fighting. Those are great fun to create.

I too have to go back in subsequent rewrites and try to put in more emotion, body language, and context (where they are, and what they're doing as they talk).

I think the trick is to save most of the narrative for those times in the novel when one of your main characters is thinking about and processing what just happened (known as the sequel). If you put too much narrative in an action scene it slows down the pace too much.


Karen said...

Silver, I'm still trying to cure my use of dialogue tags. I like your explanations and will keep them close by for future reference.

Happy editing.

Karen said...

Hey Jana. Those are my favorite too. When both main characters are determined to win or make a point. That's when I'm a happy writer.

What you say about narrative and the sequel makes perfect sense to me now. Thanks to you and Silver the light is coming on.

Karen said...

HEY, has no one caught my feeble attempt at an April Fool's JOKE?

Erika said...

I know of one particular author who is all about dialogue. Her name is Jennifer Crusie. She is the dialogue queen.

Personally, I don't need all the narrative and description. Tell me where we are or where we're going and I'll create the rest in my head. I don't need to know what color her grandmother's hand me down couch was just tell me she has one and get to the point. Unless of course the couch is the point....

ANYWAY, I am a dialogue kinda reader.

Karen said...

I agree with you, Erika. Sometimes I prefer when the details are left to my imagination. Well some details...

ban said...

great post karem - wish there was more i could add to it ... sorry, i didn't get your joke, are you gonna share ? :D

Karen said...

Hi ban, I'm terrible at these things. Did you like the quote by Mauve Wording? Pretty lame, heh?

Molli said...

Hi Karen. Good post. The balance thing isn't as much of an issue with me as character voice. When I'm writing, I put into words what I visualize happening. That sometimes leads me to too much narrative, which slows things down while dialogue speeds the pace. I have to keep that in mind, but I'm usually able to figure it out when I'm editing.

What I'm not so good at is making sure my voice doesn't creep into the dialogue. I don't seem to have as many issues with my heroine sounding like me as I do with my hero sounding like a woman despite my best intentions. I'm thinking I'll have to look for that book Hayley talked about at the last meeting on thinking like a man. And I'm with you on the "practice, practice" bit.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Karen - much to ponder as I go back and look at my Lady Bells (which is almost done the final edit - hahahahaha).

From that first draft to this final one - I always need to focus on dialogue. I'm a wordy person and my narrative goes on forever. So, I'm the opposite of most people here (except Molli, who sounds like a fellow wordsmith). But, I think I'm getting better (character exercises like we did really help).

Loved the reference to Chase - yeah, he would be all over green tree, bush, wouldn't he. Then he'd ask "What?" if we asked for more :)

How lame am I? What movie are you referencing?

Janet C. said...

And thanks to Jana - I didn't know that the follow up to a full out action/dialogue scene was called the sequel.

Karen said...

I've been thinking of the book Hayley mentioned, too, but I'm insisting I finish the one I'm already very slowly working my way through on character, emotion and view point before I buy another. Besides I really do think it comes down to practice.

Karen said...

The movie is Speed. It's one of my all time favorites. And I agree those character exercises we did really helped me get into Chase's head and helped round him out (I hope).

Good luck on your final editing of Lady Bells. Can't wait to read it someday.

Karen said...

About the sequel. Go here:

I loved this article and found it immensely helpful. Anita touched on some of it when she blogged about MRU's. Curious what you think about it.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Excellent topic Karen, I found myself thinking about similar topics just this morning.

Narrative comes easier to me, I'm the sort of writer that could slip into pages and pages of exposition and never miss the dialogue.. not that I'm saying I should. I find my productivity slows down a lot when I get into conversations, as I work to really craft something both believable, appropriate to the period, and convey cant and pacing of the exchange as I envision it.

Trying to construct narrative around dialogue is probably what slows me down the most, and it seems I'm not alone there. Keeping each character tagged without going overboard on said-isms, and conveying pauses and such with narrative interludes to keep the reader from speeding up and hammering through the dialogue. I found extra attention on body language has really helped though. It keeps me from constantly referencing eyes (gah) or arbitrarily moving characters around the room so I have something to say. You may have noticed the static nature of the character interviews kept me fishing for narrative details for a while, before I relaxed and let it become mostly dialogue.

Karen said...

It sounds like most of us are in the same boat. Maybe we need some narrative type writing exercises. I, for one, didn't notice any fishing for narrative details in our exercise. I thought your characters expressed themselves very well in their interviews.