Critique Technique, Part 34—Imbalance Between Narrative and Dialog

OK, I admit it: saying there’s an imbalance between narrative and dialog in a piece of writing is like saying there’s an imbalance between the ice cream and the banana in a banana split. For some people’s tastes, it’s not possible to have too much ice cream. Or too much banana.

But for most of us, there’s a sweet spot (pun fully intended), around which a little bit more ice cream or banana, or a little bit less, would still be OK.

The same is true of the balance between narrative and dialog. Except that the range is wider. Much wider.

It’s possible to write and publish a story that has no dialog whatsoever. I’ve done it. James Michener, I’m told, wrote hundreds of dialog-free pages at the beginning of Hawaii.

The opposite—no narrative at all—could be done too, I suppose, but not easily. At some point, the speakers are going to have to be identified within the conversation (after all, even one “Bob said” or “Alice said” dialog tag is narrative) and that runs the risk of the name-calling and “as you know, Bob” problems, which I’ll discuss in later posts.

So what we’re really dealing with here isn’t a 100% of one or the other situation, or even 50% + 1%, which is way too mathematical, anyway. It’s much more subjective but nevertheless real: what is the balance between narrative and dialog that tells the story effectively? Or more to the point, how can you as a reviewer spot when the relative proportions result in a story that isn’t told well?

It’s also important to note here that this imbalance can strike almost down to the paragraph level. There’s nothing wrong with a single paragraph being all narrative or all dialog, but problems can start to show up within just a cluster of paragraphs, far below the level of a scene.

The central question is whether you remained engaged with the story. Did your mind start to wander? Did you start skipping material? Did you find yourself confused, having to go back to reread a passage? If the answer to any of these questions was yes, that could be a sign that the balance between narrative and dialog is out of whack. (It could be a sign of other problems, of course, but for now we’ll ignore those possibilities.)

Especially in fiction, when a piece has a run of paragraphs that is nothing but narrative, the author may be info-dumping or lecturing the reader. When that happens, the pace will drag or even come to a complete stop. Readers will skip ahead to where the action picks up again.

Similarly, large blocks of narrative can be signs the author is “telling” the story, rather than “showing” it. If he describes what a character thought or felt, rather than letting the reader experience those feelings or hear those thoughts, he’ll do it through narrative.

These are both examples of the dreaded “expository lump,” that carcinoma of words which, if allowed to spread, will suck the life out of a story. When you find one, it’s time to put on your best Lady Macbeth and with a cry of, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” wield your reviewer’s pen.

The key, again, is engagement: if a piece is filled with page after page of nothing but narrative but you can’t put it down, it’s working and imbalance isn’t an issue.

Too much dialog reveals itself in some ways that are similar and some that are different.

Dialog can be an expository lump in disguise. In this case, a character does the lecturing, instead of the author/narrator, by either making a long speech to another character or ruminating in interior monolog.

“Long” can be subjective, by the way. A single paragraph of a dozen lines can be long if it makes the reader lose interest.

Dialog can also get out of balance if the contents of the conversation are boring. Dialog can be boring if:

  • it fails to move the story forward,
  • its relevance isn’t clear,
  • it deals with insignificant matters,
  • the characters are just exchanging information, or
  • the characters show no emotion or interest in what they’re discussing.

The common thread here is the lack of conflict. Effective dialog has a spark, an energy that keeps the reader intensely inside the scene.

Dialog-as-info-dump suffers from a similar problem but in this case there’s no opportunity for conflict because the speaker just won’t shut up.

Another way dialog can be out of balance is if the author is using it (intentionally or otherwise) to avoid providing the kinds of details that narrative provides best. There are times when just a brief bit of narrative—a description of a gesture that reveals contradictory emotion, for example—can show what dialog alone cannot.

Relevant setting details are another example of good use of narrative rather than dialog. If an author tries to have a character describe something verbally, it will likely sound stilted and awkward. She’s using the wrong tool for the job.

Finally, dialog gets out of balance when the reader loses track of who’s speaking. Even if two characters are speaking with highly distinctive voices, after a while a reader needs a cue in the form of a dialog tag to be sure he’s still on track. This is even more true when there are more than two characters in the scene.

Dialog’s different and shorter sentence structure results in space on the page with no printing on it. This “white space” lets the reader rest a bit. Narrative can provide something similar. Small insertions of narrative—the dialog tag, the descriptive detail—also provide a restful break, however brief, that keeps the reader engaged.

To sum up, then, how can you as a reviewer tell if a piece’s narrative and dialog are getting out of balance? If the balance seems off, is it because:

  • The author is lecturing or info-dumping, in either dialog or narrative?
  • The author is providing too much detail, too little, or via the wrong method?
  • The author is telling what should be shown, or showing what should be told?
  • The characters are discussing things that make the story drag or in a way that loses your interest?
  • The author is failing to mix the dialog and narrative in ways that allow you to rest, even while you stay interested?
  • The author lets you lose track of who’s speaking?

If you find any of these situations, be sure to let the author know and suggest alternatives.

What signals to you that a piece’s narrative and dialog are out of balance?



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