Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance

Note: This post first appeared in my blog in 2012. I’ve updated it with new information.

Hi Folks,

Seems like every other week or so someone reports to me that a writing instructor or contest judge or other self-appointed expert has advised that the writer should use less dialogue and more narrative in a given story. Recently, a respondent recalled the exact wording the professor of ludicrosity used:

“If you change a lot of this dialogue to narrative, the story will be a lot more interesting. All fiction should be about forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative.”

What? ALL fiction SHOULD BE about forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative?

Okay, really, honestly, seriously, there is a lot wrong with that statement.

First, nobody who has any knowledge of how to write fiction can possibly say with the slightest bit of sincerity that any rule applies to “ALL” fiction. If they try it, stop listening.

Second, the story will not be more interesting if you change dialogue to narrative. Actually, the reverse is true because you’re getting rid of a direction character-reader connection (dialogue) in favor of a middle man narrator (and then this happened). Ugh.

Third, if you believe “All Fiction Should Be” forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative, what’s to stop you from believing the next so-called expert who tells you the ratio of dialogue to narrative should be thirty/seventy or twenty/eighty or ten/ninety or any of those in reverse?

Oh, and fourth, as my Psych 101 instructor said roughly a b’jillion years ago, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself, and definitely don’t ‘should’ on anyone else.”

Seriously, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

I also noticed two interesting facts about people who spew numbers and talk about achieving a “balance” between dialogue and narrative:

  1. They don’t actually write fiction themselves, and
  2. They never provide a concrete reason. Never.

Now you probably already know what I think about so-called experts who can’t provide the rationale for their advice. Briefly, if you can’t explain ad nauseam what you’re teaching, shut up. Seriously.

If your standard line is “Well, I can’t explain it but I know it when I see it” or “I can’t explain it but this is right, trust me,” ummm NO. You need to either teach something different or maybe get a job in which all you have to remember is to ask whether the customer wants fries with his order.

Okay, so here’s MY rationale for saying the guy was wrong to spout such inane advice:

Dialogue provides the reader with a direct, intimate line to the characters, the people who are actually living the story. Because it directly engages the reader, even bad dialogue is automatically more interesting than any narrative. Not that you should “give yourself permission” (or whatever they’re saying now) to write bad dialogue.

Narrative on the other hand is intrusive. Even necessary narrative, which is to say narrative that is written to describe the scene. In every case, the narrator comes from outside the storyline to tap the reader on the shoulder and talk for a moment. If the moment is too long or unnecessary, the interruption will cause the reader to stop reading and find something less annoying to do. In effect, your narrator will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Some narrative is necessary, but remember this guideline: The narrator’s only task is to describe the scene.

The good narrator is a tame narrator. He isn’t allowed to offer his opinion, comment on the state of the world, describe a character’s emotional state of being or use (except very sparingly) verbs that indicate physical or emotional senses: saw, could see; heard, could hear; smelled, could smell; tasted, could taste; felt, could feel; or knew.

Instead, the good narrator will simply describe the scene and let the reader see, hear, smell, taste and feel right along with the character as the scene unfolds. Here are a couple of examples:

Good: A few minutes later she heard the front doorknob turn and the door squeal open.

Better: A few minutes later the front doorknob turned and the door squealed open.

Good: As she entered the house, she could smell the acrid odor of sizzling electrical circuits.

Better: As she entered the house, the acrid odor of sizzling electrical circuits stung her nose.

Incidentally, this is also what writing instructors mean when they say “Show, don’t tell.” That snappy little saw actually means “Don’t let your narrator tell the reader what’s going on; instead have him just describe the scene so the reader can see for himself what’s going on.” The former is easier to remember, but the latter makes more concrete sense.

Now, I’m the first to admit that not all stories lend themselves to dialogue. Some stories need more narrative than dialogue. Some even need to be written only in narrative. (The “tamed narrator” bit still applies though.)

But any time anyone tells you a story must (or should) be xx% dialogue and xx% narrative, follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Immediately, if silently, decide against taking any advice from that person, ever; then
  2. (if you want to have a little fun) Ask him to explain his rationale.
  3. Cross your arms, don a knowing look, and wait.

If your lifelong dream has been to see a guy’s head explode, I hope you will enjoy the show.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance”

  1. Thanks Harvey. I do want my readers to experience the story not be told it. Sorry you are slightly under the weather but your explanations never are. 🙂 Are you even thinking about having another seminar…I would love to attend if you do.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      I’m thinking of putting on another seminar, but I’m not sure when or where yet. YOu’ll be on the list. 🙂

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