Balancing Narrative & Dialogue

There’s no rule that says you have to have a certain amount of dialogue versus a certain amount of narrative. However, it’s good to have a balance. If a book contains mostly narrative, it’ll be harder to move the story along or to include any action, which may make it a boring read. This is largely dependent on the topic, though. For example, Bernard Beckett’s book, Genesis, is almost pure conversation. The book revolves around an examination the main character has to take, in which philosophy, ethics and artificial intelligence are debated. It’s written in an entertaining way, and the purpose is to make readers think, so this is a rare example of almost no narrative working best, as any action in Genesis would have been irrelevant and distracting.

Avoid narrative in (physical) fight scenes unless it adds value to the story, and be sure not to have too much narrative if you do use it in fight scenes, as it’s unnatural to have a conversation with someone when you’re throwing punches, swinging swords or shooting at each other. Dialogue in these scenes might include taunts or one party trying to persuade the other to settle the matter amicably.

Dialogue can often show a character’s personality or viewpoints better than narrative; although this isn’t always the case, it always gives readers a better feel for the character. Dialogue is effective when used for arguments, including back story or long-winded explanations. It’s also easier to insert natural humour in dialogue than in narrative.

When deciding whether to use narrative or dialogue for a particular section, ask yourself which would be more descriptive and the least likely to bore readers, and which would draw the reader in better. If unsure, write that scene using both – the ‘wrong one’ will jump out at you, more often than not, or the ‘right one’ will feel right, even if you aren’t sure why.

With this in mind, know that the best works usually have dialogue and narrative blended, so the two work together to draw readers into your story and keep them reading. For example, in a verbal argument, you might have more dialogue than narrative, but the narrative that is there describes the characters’ body language, such as clenched hands, stiff shoulders, sighs or drumming fingers on a desk.

Note that dialogue should further the story or show a character’s personality or motivations – never insert dialogue just for the sake of inserting it.

All this said, my advice for this is to just write in a way that feels natural and flows smoothly – in my experience, the narrative versus dialogue will sort itself out.

Extract from the Editors’ Bible, by Vanessa Finaughty.

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6 Responses to Balancing Narrative & Dialogue

  1. “Narrative in these scenes might include taunts or one party trying to persuade the other to settle the matter amicably.”

    This might be my Monday-brain misreading it, but don’t you mean dialogue in this case?

  2. Pingback: Balancing Narrative and Dialogue | Compelled to Write

  3. Carol Moye says:

    Thanks. This is exactly what I struggle with. This article was very helpful.

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