Writers' Treasure Fiction Writing Writing Tip: Finding the Balance of Narrative and Dialogue

Writing Tip: Finding the Balance of Narrative and Dialogue

In the world of fiction writing, there are many things to explore. Subplots, conflict, POV, characters, you name it. But have you heard of narrative and dialogue? If you’ve got a story, you’ve got to narrate it. If you’ve got a set of characters, they have to converse, i.e., talk. Talking in fiction writing is known as dialogue, and narrating or describing anything is known as narrative.

Now where’s the problem in that?

Too much of a good thing is usually a bad thing, and it applies here. Some writers use narrative a lot. Their characters aren’t talkers. It’s just page after page of narrative, how they did this, their journey, their perils, the people they met, the surroundings, and so on. All description. At which point your story looks like an essay which no one wants to read, rather than an amazing novel.

On the Flip Side

Then there are those who overdo dialogue. Every page is filled up with dialogue. Have you ever read such a book? Me neither — the publishers don’t want to publish a book which readers won’t read, and boring dialogue is high on the list of unpopular writing.

Dialogue is good. Unnecessary dialogue, now that’s a different thing, a different kettle of fish. Your dialogue must never be used for exposition. In some cases, OK fine. But for most, narrative is required for heavy description, simply because in narrative one writes in the author’s tone, but when one is writing dialogue one must write how a certain character talks.

Ideally, dialogue should be used to supplement narrative. I personally like dialogue-driven books way more than I like books which use heavy narrative, but there are separate audiences for the two categories, and there are people who will read both if the story is good. As I said previously in Writing Tip: The Importance of Word Count, things like word count, narrative and dialogue are secondary if you haven’t even got a good story.

Read this great dialogue writing tips post.

Finding the Balance

If you have a riveting plot or characters, you may get away with too much narrative or too much dialogue. But for normal people who want to maximize their chances of getting published, it’s a bad idea, and I don’t in the least recommend it.

Of course, some situations may require heavy narrative, but you must always try to balance it up later by including dialogue. Try to use dialogue to move the plot forward, don’t stall it. That is one of the main dialogue don’ts many editors see on manuscripts.

Even if your book is published, and your writing style is not exceptional, then people will put your book down and say it’s boring. Use riveting narrative. And try to use short paragraphs, please. If you have heavy narrative and long paragraphs, then suffice to say, I won’t want to spend my time reading your novel (and neither would anyone else). Very simple mistake and very easy to avoid (or correct), but it does have drastic effects.

Any Exceptions?

If you’re a regular reader, you know that in nearly every post I have some mention of “exceptions”. Well, this post is no different, read on. 🙂

I’m sure you’ve heard of The Lord of the Rings. It’s extremely famous and popular, but have you ever thought that it has too much description? Sure, some people have, but the majority of the public loved the book because the author was exceptionally strong in his story. It didn’t matter that his book was long or that there wasn’t much dialogue (in comparison). It depended on the story, didn’t it?

And every book is like that. Truth be told, I have read a couple of novels which had much more dialogue than narrative, but the story was so gripping that I didn’t even notice. I didn’t care. Most people didn’t. In fact, it may have even worked out to the author’s advantage, because it was a young adult/middle grade novel and typically that age group (I lie in it) likes dialogue much more than heavy narrative. You may have noticed that I keep saying heavy narrative. That’s because narrative is fine and even necessary to a novel. A heavy narrative, however, has adverse effects.

Effective Writing

Narrative can be effective. Even dialogue can. But there is an “if” — it’s only if it is written well. If it is written perfectly. If it is concise.

And for that you simply have to write, write, write and then edit like mad. Freak out at hearing the phrase “editing like mad”? But no, editing can be made easier with simple techniques.

Do you have any narrative and dialogue writing experiences to share? Fiction writing to add? Agree or disagree, be sure to tell it in the comments.

This is the third instalment of the series Writing Tips: How to Write Better. Get updates about the rest of the series by subscribing to Writers’ Treasure today.

8 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Finding the Balance of Narrative and Dialogue”

  1. I think the best dialogue either reveals the characters’ personalities or establishes their relationships (with each other). Dialogue is tricky because you don’t want all the characters to sound the same (like the author/narrator), so in a way, you have to get in character when writing dialogue or character perspectives. This is where an acting class or two might come in handy.

  2. I agree. I’ve always wondered how the “author’s tone” is so different from the character’s tone in third person POV. Dialogue writing is extremely hard to do for any writer, but for me, it’s one of the best things to write, rather than narrative. Even when I was not writing novels, I was writing dialogue for English school papers, so that gave me practice.

    An acting class… good idea. Personally, I think the bottom line is that you should only write dialogue if you really know your character. Looking forward to hear your views on this point!

  3. Excellent post – very informative and true.

    I must say however, that this website’s use of pixels for the font size required me to zoom in over 40% to be comfortable enough to read.

    1. Thanks, but have you changed the text settings in your browser? Here the text is set as 15px, which is quite comfortable — at least for me. I would use em, but I still haven’t learned a lot about that design aspect, and pixels just seem more familiar. Still, I will consider switching to a more flexible text font size standard in the near future.

  4. I received a reader comment that she enjoyed my book, but thought the conversations were too long. No other elaboration. That’s why I’m here, trying to get opinions on the subject. I agree with what Idrees says: don’ try to give info in dialogue, use for character development etc. Anyway, I went over the ms (470 pages) and noted that there is a lot of dialogue. I feel it is appropriate to the story (young soldiers in Okinawa during Vietnam) and I don’t think I violated the “known” rules of dialogue. Not sure about making the characters sound like themselves, but think that I’ve done that fairly well.

    In reading a number of blogs etc on the subject I find it interesting not to have found any mention of techniques such as “free indirect style’ to such good effect by Henry James, Flaubert and others.

    Beyond that, thanks for the informative post.

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