Narration and Dialogue
What are narration and dialogue?
You’ve undoubtedly seen the words narrated by on the screen credits of a documentary, basically they are the person who is telling the story behind the action. Narration is the process of telling the events and whatever happens in your book, apart from when the characters are speaking, which is known as dialogue.
I hate to give rules for writing, since it is a creative process and you as writer are free to break the rules, and many do quite successfully, but equally it is important to know what the rules are before you can break them. Equally, the rules are there because they work, they make a book go from mediocre to good, to fabulous.
One of the most important rules in narration is to show rather than tell. However a book really needs to combine the two.
There is a wonderful line by Anton Chekov on the art of narration which says Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. That perfectly encapsulates the art of showing. Use all of the five senses to make the reader feel as if they are there, seeing what the character is looking at, hearing what they hear. I like to see the action in my mind as if I am watching a movie replaying in my imagination, I can visualise what the character is feeling, physically and mentally. This is what you need to recount to your readers.
As a writer you need to absorb yourself into each character, but then take a step back and work as a story teller. Be slow with your narration, for instance if you are writing about an argument, use your narration, as well as the dialogue to really suck the reader into the emotion. For instance, don’t say ‘she trembled with fear,’ show by saying ‘her hand shook as she lifted the glass, the liquid slopped onto the table.’
You’ll probably belonging to get the action down onto the page, but you can help yourself past this eagerness by carefully plotting the book so you know what is going to happen next and thus can focus on slowing down your narration.
The art of showing will really involve the reader in the plot and will let them discover facets about the character for themselves. Don’t tell the reader a character is nice/kind/horrible/evil, let them discover that for themselves.
To tell readers would be something like ‘Emily was a lovely old lady.’
Showing readers the same character would be:- ‘Emily leant heavily on her walking stick as she crossed the room. Slowly she eased her body into the armchair, the paperlike skin of her face wreathing in to a maze of wrinkles as she smiled.’ You get the picture.
Writing is all about telling a story, but telling is completely misreading to a novice writer, because actually it misleads them. The art of story telling is by totally absorbing the reader in the emotions and action.
However there are places when it is necessary to tell a reader what is happening. Sometimes the action needs to move on and by telling the writer can do that. There is an important difference between where to show and where to tell.
Showing definitely applies to characters, and to descriptions of places, emotions and action, but telling is necessary. Telling can be used to bring the novel on where showing would just use lots more words than necessary. Such as when characters meet for the first time, the reader needs to be shown, what is happening, they need to soak up the atmosphere, what each character is feeling.
In later passages, unless they are vital for the plot, subsequent meetings can be told in a few words. By plotting you will know which scenes need showing and which can be told. It is all about balance and this will come with practice and experience and with the vital help, when you’ve written and re-written, of your editor, whose careful eye will be better than your own eager one. But more of that later.
Important scenes are shown in real time, these are the scenes where the character tries to move towards their goal. These must be shown, the reader must be sucked into the emotion, they need to feel the breeze blowing in through the open window, smell the roses growing outside the window.
Unimportant scenes, such as driving to a meeting, can be told. ‘she got in the car and drove along the coast road to Penzance.’ Think of telling as pressing the fast forward button on the television. You don’t need to see every bit of the action to understand what is going on. Sometimes it is fine to just write ‘A month later I was still…’ That nicely leaps you from one scene to the next without needing a whole lot of showing. Although be aware that often during those periods of time your character will be mulling over what to do next. They’ll be letting the last few scenes settle into their psyche ready for the next push towards their goal. So you will need to factor that in when making the decision whether to show or tell.
Dialogue is another vital string in a writer’s bow.
While again, with writing there are rules that are there and can be broken by those who know how to, dialogue does need to follow rules to keep the readers interest, otherwise it becomes dull and the reader will lose interest.
Firstly with dialogue, keep it brief and too the point. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t have lots of dialogue, that is good in a novel, but don’t have huge chunks of it.
Dialogue in a novel isn’t designed to be the characters having a conversation, even though they are, but instead is a way for a writer to build tension, show us about the characters, tell us about other characters and generally bring the action forwards.
Look at your normal day to day conversation, its probably about what the children need for school, who is doing what when work/school finishes/ who has forgotten what/ what is on television and the most important, what is for dinner. Put that in a character’s dialogue and your reader will soon abandon the book.
Don’t go in for small talk. It isn’t necessary. The purpose of dialogue isn’t to be real, but do the job of narrating the action.
Use dialogue to create suspense. Tell the readers part of what they want to hear, but let them guess the other part. Don’t treat your readers as if they are stupid. They aren’t, they’ll work it out for themselves. Use gaps in the dialogue to let the reader soak up the intensity of what is going on. Gaps and unfinished sentences work brilliantly for this. You can show more about a characters personality and feelings in the way they speak, as much as in what they say. Study your favourite authors and see how they use dialogue to suck you into the character and the emotion.
Make sure you aren’t dumping a lot of information on them in the dialogue. An interesting difference between television and a book dialogue is that often in television that dialogue is used to tell the viewer something they might not understand. With a novel, you can do the same, but whereas on television the viewer can see the emotion, with a novel they have to feel it. It is the writer’s job to paint emotions with words and breath.
It is the exchanges between the characters which will drive the plot forwards, setting the scene for the next dramatic climax. It is important to chose your character’s words carefully, would they say what they are saying. This can be as basic as ensuring that an American teenager from 2019 doesn’t sound like a Victorian gentleman from London. The language, while English, is completely different.
Each of your characters will have a unique way of speaking. They are different people, with different emotions, coming at the drama from different view points. A wronged wife would have a different range of emotions and needs, which would be shown in her speech, from say the headmaster of a school about to upbraid a tardy youth for skiving off and smoking behind the bike shed. This must be obvious in the way the character’s speak.
There are certain novels and writers who write the character’s speech as they speak, that is with the strong accents they would have in ‘real’ life. Personally I don’t like this. I find it hard to read and it slows the reading down for me and spoils the reading experience, but others don’t find it so. As a writer, you have the right to make those kind of executive decisions.
A character can have a unique way of talking without the need for spelling out the local dialects.
While dialogue isn’t real, it is speech without being what we would really say, it has a greater job, that is to bring the plot forwards, increase the tension in the plot and between the characters, but, just when you thought writing was easy, the speech has to sound as if it is normal day to day stuff.
Be consistent with each character. Make sure that they don’t speak in one way at the beginning of the book and have changed by the end. Not in the way they speak anyway. Make sure if your character is say an elderly person, their dialogue is consistent with what an elderly person would say, their hopes and emotions. Equally ensure that the needs that are driving the characters in the novel stay consistent and visible in their speech. If they don’t you need to explain why they’ve changed.
Slow down the dialogue and create tension by showing what the characters are doing while they are speaking. This has the dual effect of creating more tension in the dialogue and also between the characters.
It also can be used to break up the page. Not only have you, as the writer, got to come up with a top notch plot and keep your readers attention with that, you’ve got to involve them completely on the page, but also your page has to look good while it is doing all of those things. There is nothing worse than huge chunks of unbroken text, It looks horrible on the page and is terrible to read. There are too many great books available for your reader without making reading yours into a difficult experience for them. Keep plenty of white space on the page. This is done by breaking up the dialogue and equally interspersing it with description so there isn’t too much of either.
Dialogue needs to do the following otherwise it is a waste, of you writing it and your reader bothering to read it.
It needs to move the story forwards. After each exchange of words the reader needs to be closer to the climax of the story.
It needs to provide information about the character, their likes, dislikes, feelings and emotions. The reader needs to understand what makes the character act why they do, and how they feel closer, or further away from their goal.
It also needs to help the reader to understand the relationship between the characters, which undoubtedly will fluctuate throughout the plot.
Keep exchanges short. The reader wants to get on with the plot, they don’t need lengthy exchanges that are irrelevant.
You can build up tension in the dialogue by breaking it up to show the emotional pain the character is in by what they do, their reaction to what has been said, their face draining of colour, their fingers tapping nervously on the desk, fiddling with their hair, or whatever.
Don’t begin exchanges with an introductory, hello, how are you type of start, instead go straight for the jugular, ‘I’m surprised you dared come back here.’ Grab the reader by the throat and keep them awake, don’t for one moment let them off the hook to drop off to sleep.
Don’t use the character’s dialogue to dump a load of information on the reader, such as reminding the reader of something that has already happened, or a clumsy attempt to bring something to their attention they should know, but don’t yet. There are better ways to do that. Credit your reader with the intelligence to spot a clumsy, lazy writer a mile off, because they will.
Use dialogue tags to show emotion and character traits. Don’t always finish she/he said. Carry on with the character doing something, ‘I wish X,Y,Z were dead,’ he sighed.
There are so many descriptive words that you as a writer can have lots of fun with them and use them to bring the character to life. He shuffled his feet, ‘I’m thinking of buying that car.’ Shows both the characters uncertainty and gives an idea of his character.
Go through novels you enjoy and see how the author uses those descriptive words at the end of dialogue. How they draw out the speech with little character nuances.
Make sure it is obvious the reader understands who is speaking. Sometimes if there is a long exchange without ‘Jamie said’ to anchor the reader, they can get lost and forget who is speaking. They may forgive you this once, or twice and go back to re-read the passage, but you aren’t doing yourself any favours. While you credit your reader with the intelligence to work out what is going on by the pauses and unspoken words in the passages, equally they aren’t mind readers, they don’t know what you are thinking, so treat them gently and ensure it is obvious who is speaking.
If a character is usually shy and has a way of speaking which shows that, then they won’t suddenly become loud and extraverted, so be consistent with how they speak. A character will speak differently to say a policeman than they would to their best friend, unless they have a character flaw you want to show.
Create suspense by showing, in the dialogue who has the upper hand in the conflict, and how the other characters react. You need to be aware also of what the reader needs to have found out in the exchange. Each word, each piece of dialogue, or description has to have a reason for being in your book.
Body language is just as vital as what is said. So is your character’s awareness of what is going on around them. In a highly charged exchange they may not be aware of the smell of the roses, but equally it could make them feel sick.
Use tags at the end of the lines of speech to help you, she shouted, she sobbed and so on, but strike a balance, use these all of the time it looks like you are trying to hard to be clever. So don’t be afraid to use said, sometimes.