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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Critique Technique, Part 28—Awkward Dialog

Ah, dialog. It’s hard for many writers to do well. When it works, it crackles, sings, inspires, enrages, chills, thrills. But when it doesn’t, does it ever show. It may be stiff and stilted, choppy or verbose, confusing or confused, the list goes on. Any or all of those characteristics can be acceptable, even necessary, when they reflect the character of the speaker. It’s when they don’t that there’s trouble.

There are many reasons for this. First off, dialog in writing—all writing: fiction, memoir, and non-fiction—is not natural, but has to sound natural when read, especially out loud. Real dialog includes pauses, repetitions, false starts, bad grammar, slang and jargon, incomplete sentences, and other problems.

Fictional dialog does, too, but with a difference: when written well, the author means for any of those things to be there, if they are. Fictional dialog is “better” than natural speech without seeming to be constructed, even though it is.

Perhaps even more than in narrative, every word must be the right word. Sentence structure must be just right to convey the proper degree of tension—from raving rage to the gentlest soothing. Every speaker must say just the right thing, especially when that’s just the wrong thing.

I could go on. Many authors have. There are dozens of books on writing effective dialog. That’s why this series of posts will have so many entries.

There’s no particular reason for starting the series with dialog that’s awkward, other than these problems are so common. The good news for you as a reviewer is that bad dialog calls attention to itself. You feel the problem as you read it. You find yourself saying, “Huh?” or “Get on with it, will you?” or even throwing the story across the room in frustration.

But let’s get a bit more specific about a few ways dialog can be awkward. We’ll start with dialog that is stiff or stilted.

First off, what do I mean by “stiff” and “stilted?” They’re very similar, so I need to be clear on how they’re different. Stiff dialog has these characteristics:

  • It is often too grammatically correct. Sentences are complete, with an explicit subject, verb, and object.
  • Sentences may be long and rambling (see below) or short and choppy, like this: “Bob went to the store. He bought a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. He paid for them in cash.”
  • The speakers avoid using contractions, saying “I will” rather than “I’ll,” for example.
  • It’s emotionally flat, even when trying to express strong emotion, perhaps by avoiding the strong language that high emotion requires.
  • The pace never changes and often plods.

In short, stiff dialog sounds the way a robot in a bad science fiction movie would speak.

Stilted dialog is stiff, and then some. It adds extra degrees of formality, “expert” or erudite language (like that), and emotional distance between the speakers. Sentences in stilted writing (dialog or narrative) tend to be longer and more complex than they need to be and to use many words where few would do. The result can be something like this: “As you can see, madam, by virtue—or lack thereof—of your behavior, it shall be necessary for me to make inquiries into the nature and number of your previous liaisons with potential suitors in order that I may be better informed as to their, and your, morality and any potential indications of turpitude or depravity.”

As opposed to, “So, Alice, who’ve you been screwing lately?”

There are other ways writing can be unintentionally awkward.

  • Unclear personal pronoun references can be a real problem. When there are two characters of the same gender in a sentence or paragraph, referring to both of them with pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers) can leave the reader confused over which pronoun refers to which character.
  • Conversely, using the characters’ names over and over can be just as awkward. There’s no confusion over who’s being referred to but repeating the names doesn’t reflect natural speech patterns.
  • “Talking around” a topic, that is, using euphemisms or indirect language rather than coming out and naming the thing, can lead to real confusion for the reader, whether it’s the narrator or a character speaking.
  • Abnormal word order is a technique writers will use when they’re trying to make a character seem “foreign”—Yoda from the Star Wars movies—or uneducated. Used sparingly and in character, this technique can be fine. Use it too much, though, and the reader will struggle.

While I’ve concentrated on dialog here, awkward narrative shares all of these faults. The only difference is that it’s the narrator “speaking” directly or indirectly to the reader, rather than the reader listening in on a character’s thoughts or a conversation between two or more characters.

So what can you do to help repair awkward dialog or narrative? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the author to read her work out loud before she submits it to you. Or, read the unedited work out loud to her so she can hear just how awkward it is. But don’t exaggerate the problems! Let the awkwardness speak for itself.
  • Help the writer loosen up his writing by breaking sentences up, varying their lengths, and creating sentence fragments.
  • Point out where the characters and narrator can and should use contractions.
  • Propose language that better expresses emotion.
  • Delete excess words and phrases or substitute shorter, punchier ones or ones that address a topic more clearly.
  • Put words into the normal, or a more natural, speaking order.

Awkward dialog or narrative will undermine a reader’s confidence in a writer perhaps faster than just about anything else. It’s immediately obvious. It’s also generally easy to fix, and as a reviewer, you’ll do your writer-friend a huge favor by helping them do so.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 27, 2012

When I started this morning’s reading, I thought I might be seeing slow day at the end of a busy week. Boy, was I wrong! In fact, as I type this, I’m considering breaking this post into two: one strictly on craft, the other on marketing and publishing, since there’s so much on each. Have to see how this develops. We’ll start with craft.

  • Harvey Stanbrough’s (@hstanbrough) hilarious but on-point Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance zings the idea that there’s some ideal ratio between how much narrative a story has and how much dialogue. Particularly in Harvey’s sights is the false credibility of percentages, the idea that if someone quotes percentages, what they’re saying must be right and true. (I’m thinking of a certain writer and blogger who does this with plot points.) For my money, the “right” balance between narrative and dialog is the one that tells the story best. Because every story’s different, there will never be a single ratio that will apply to every one.
  • Kathryn Lilley (@kathrynelilley) weighs in with another funny piece, this time on The Kill Zone: Drop That Polysyllable!This time the target is the idea that some words are “too fancy” for a piece. Many sides to this argument, some of which are hers, some her commenters, some mine:
    1. New-to-the-reader words improve their vocabulary, which is a good thing;
    2. Making the reader stop reading while they reach for or activate a dictionary distracts them from your story, which you don’t want;
    3. Showing off your vocabulary, just because you can, pisses readers off, and pissed-off readers won’t finish your work;
    4. Mark Twain’s argument about the right word versus the almost-right word–if the right word’s not common, it’s still the right word; and
    5. Whatever happened to using context to suss out the meaning of an uncommon word, eh?
  • OK, I’ll fit one serious piece in here: Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) The Villain’s Journey–Recap from ThrillerFest, in which she discusses not only how villains and antagonists differ, but ways to make villains more interesting–not just by the usual way of giving them a goal opposite to the hero’s but by giving them the same goal but with different means and motives for achieving it.

Ordinarily the transition from craft to marketing and publishing would be quick and clean, but today there’s a post that covers both, so that’s where we’ll go first.

  • Marcia Yudkin (@marciasmantras)  writes In Praise of Ripening on Writer Beware (R) Blogs! The “ripening” she refers to is writers spending the time to learn their craft, rather than inflicting whatever they come up with on the world via self-publishing. That sounds like such an old-fashioned idea to many, especially given the get-rich-quick siren call of the internet, but alas we know what’s really happened: crappy book after crappy book thrown out there, not even worth its 99¢ asking price. Let’s hope this is just a phase in the development of e-publishing that will wear itself out after enough wannabes fail. But then, there’ll always be more wannabes out there, won’t there, and modern day P.T. Barnums willing to take advantage of them.
  • Along those same lines, Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) posts a video today on why Bookstore Distribution for print-on-demand books is such a bad idea. This math, unlike the phony math Harvey cites above, is hard to argue with. And brutal.
  • Dee DeTarsio (@deedetarsio) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog about her Small-Budget Marketing Experiment. Not all marketing efforts produce big results. Dee offers no explanations for why hers performed as it did, but that’s not the point in this case. She’s just reporting on what happened.
  • Which gets us to two posts that come via Nathan Bransford’s (@nathanbransford) These Past Few Weeks in Books.
    • Penelope Trunk’s (@PenelopeTrunk) How I got a big advance and self-published anyway is a blunt and almost-no-holds-barred tale of her experience with a major (but unnamed) publisher and their incompetence (in her view) at marketing. It’s clear from the post why she killed the contract for her non-fiction book. What’s not clear is whether her experience extends to fiction publishing as well or to other (Big-6?) publishing houses. Still, her point about the major houses not having any market information to guide their marketing efforts is in line with an article I mentioned in a previous post about the data Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other companies who sell e-readers are gathering through their e-readers.
    • Laura Hazard Owen (@laurahazardowen) provides some additional context on Paid Content in her interview with Trunk. She provides some background on Trunk herself, how Trunk came up with the numbers she threw at the publisher’s marketers, other views of Trunk’s opinions, and Trunk’s own reaction to those responses. In addition to the fiction/non-fiction divide I noted above, I should also note that Trunk’s book is a compilation of her own blog posts, which might also be a significant difference–or it might not–when it comes to how a publisher would plan to market it.

Still, this entire set of posts is a powerful reminder to not-yet-published authors to go into the entire experience with your eyes wide open, your expectations realistic, and your homework done. Publishing–traditional or electronic–is a business, and the business world does not treat the naive or the unprepared kindly.

 

Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

This post begins a series on narrative and dialog. Stated most simply, narrative and dialog are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monolog (sometimes shown in italics).

While it’s true that dialog can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader:

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”

Oy.

On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialog—I published one that had only internal monolog; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

One reason is that we engage in dialog every day: we talk to each other. Characters need to do that, too. Dialog:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says reveals what he knows, how she’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how she perceives another character, and so on.
  • Can build or relieve tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.

In short, dialog is all but essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier Critique Technique articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialog appear in narrative, too, and vice versa. But there are also some problems that are unique to dialog, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Inappropriate language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialog;
  • Name-calling within dialog; and
  • Using dialog to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start. What other problems would you like me to discuss in this section? Add your suggestions in the Comments below.