You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I’ve just returned from a trip home to Texas. I took with me plenty of pens and paper, books and ideas; once I touched down and hooked up with family I hadn’t seen in years, though, everything but the loving fell to the wayside.

So this Wednesday, I give you a re-post of an old post on a topic that never gets dull: dialogue versus narrative.

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I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should rethink my use of dialogue.

Beware: dialogue abuse.

g_fullxfull.36171Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern:

A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.

In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

But, careful with the exposition.

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: :

Entertainment today is visual—movies, television, the Internet, cell phones. To compete, fiction must also be visual, using scenes, action, description and dialogue to show a story, rather than narration to tell it. A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking, but I don’t want to go on and on with narrative and put readers to sleep.

So, what to do?

After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques for balancing dialogue and narrative:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

Photo credits: lovelornpoets on Flickr.com

Christi

About Christi

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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4 Responses to You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

  1. Christi … I am playing catch up tonight. Rudely kept from my “baby” due to a virus … I have been out of it for four long, long days and nights. Okay … a way of introducing my version of this topic.

    Oh yes, I talk waaaaay too much. I have a great connection to dialogue, loving the sounds and the nuances of my characters … BUT … a couple of months ago a book club member read something of mine. She said she loved it. I wrote her to say I had always thought she didn’t love my work and thanked her.

    Her response? Of course I loved your stories but when you began writing you talked too much. Margie Lawson teaches her students to take a draft copy and hightlight dialogue, etc. in different colors … i.e. blue is dialolgue. If you see too many solid blocks on blue you know you need to get in there and slow down … pause … don’t lose your reader in author-speak. Whatever method we need to use, finding the balance between the prose narratives, setting descriptions, back story and dialogue is a major skill we must master to guide the reader through the story.

    There you see … I’ve done it again … talked too much 🙂

    • Christi Christi says:

      Florence,
      I hope you feel 100% soon!
      I love your story, and Margie Lawson’s technique. What a great – quick – way to gauge if there’s too much or not enough. Thanks for sharing!

  2. What a HELPFUL, wonderful print-out-able post (and such a great reminder). We all know those published books with that meaningless dialogue, because we can feel the flatness of it. This is a fabulous post full of tips – and timely as I’m in editing phase of my WIP. Thanks, Christi!

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