Dialogue vs Narrative: What to Say, What to Do

Writing fiction is an interesting exercise. With all of the different styles and tones and words and everything else you have to learn and figure out, it's easy to get overwhelmed and feel like the easiest thing to do is to just copy someone else. And a lot of the time, it is. The problem is what might or might not happen after that. A lot of writers just copy someone else and leave it at that, usually burning out of ideas and inspiration just a handful of books (if that).

What's important is forming your own style. Take all of the bits and pieces of writing that I've been talking about on this site in the past, juggle them around in your head and thrash them out on paper until something comes out that's wholly, uniquely you. Your own flavor and style, with its own texture and tone. Don't just write how you talk, write how you write.

Here's another thing I've meant to bring up, but haven't really until now: dialogue and narrative. How a story hits the page changes quite a bit depending on how the prose is balanced. Some writers go very dialogue heavy in their work, using the characters as vessels to describe themselves and the world that they inhabit. Others use a narrative-heavy approach where dialogue is very minimal, and most events are fleshed out via detached description.

Something that heavily affects which side of the scale is heavier than the other is the narrative person. If a story is told in first-person, for instance, it's more likely to be narrative-heavy, usually via an internal monologue from the character the story is being told by. But a third-person story often has reams of prose to set the story in place. Really, ultimately, it comes down to what sort of story you want to tell and how figure out what the best way is to tell it.

Each one has their own pros and cons, of course. Using dialogue over narrative is very beneficial for a story's characters, since a majority of the story will be told to us through those characters. We get to learn their perspective on events, their thoughts on the setting, and how they express themselves to the other characters. It also provides a rather intriguing possibility of having an unreliable narrator, where all of that information I just mentioned might not actually be true because the character might be misinformed, delusional, or just a liar.

A more omniscient narrative style, then, provides a much cleaner and more informed story, with the sort of clinical information that is more fact-based. You know exactly how a character is feeling because the narrative text tells you so. You know what the name of this is, or that is, or what is going on, because it's all written out in front of you. For those building a world, this is a good option, because it allows you to flesh out facts beyond what the characters would logically be aware of or bring up in the story's course.

But unless you're going for a story that's rather out-there and unusual (not to mention rather tricky to actually write), you won't be writing a story that's all dialogue or all narrative. It'll be somewhat of a mix of the two, with some dialogue interlaced within more formal narrative. And this doesn't just cover novels, either, comic books/graphic novels have the same issue, and even plays or movies have to decide how much will be spoken aloud and how much will be left up to the actors, the audience's understanding or the cinematography.

My stories tend to vary quite a bit on this count, and actually change from chapter to chapter at times. When I like to lay out some facts and ideas about the story and world, I'll go more narrative heavy. When I want the characters to sprout wings and fly on their own, I give them more dialogue. It's a rather delicate sort of dance between the two, and it's one that I'm still learning about and practicing in my own writing. Like I said at the top, it's all a matter of finding out that works best for my own narrative voice.

I'll be expanding each different side and the aspects of each that work. Next time, we'll dive more into the dialogue side of things.