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“Say What?”–A Delicate Balancing Act

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Remember back at the beginning of the series (all the way to last Monday) when I posted the scoring guidelines for several different contests? Most of them required a “balance” between narrative and dialogue as the mark of good writing.

But what is this balance, and how do we know when we’ve achieved it?

Think about a book you’ve read that you found hard to read, or in which you found yourself skipping over paragraphs or even pages of the story. Sometimes, that’s because it’s just not an interesting story to us. But a lot of times, it’s because the author hasn’t managed to balance narrative with dialogue. This is going to vary from genre to genre—literary fiction is going to have much more narrative, for example. But in genre fiction, we don’t want to spend too long inside our character’s head because narrative doesn’t drive conflict—dialogue does. Why? Because dialogue happens between two or more people. And it’s bringing our characters in contact with other characters that will create and sustain conflict.

A lot of times, as novelists, we’re too apt to put our characters in situations where they’re alone, or at least by themselves/isolated even if they are surrounded by people. They’re not talking to anyone. We’re just camping out in their heads, wallowing in their angst, reading them rehashing everything that’s happened to them up to that point in the story—or worse yet, learning their entire backstory.

Let’s look at it a different way:

Just looking at a thumbnail image of these two scenes, which would you say is the scene that is actually moving the story forward, the one that has the most potential for conflict?

Most of you probably chose A, right? Well, it might surprise you to know that the scene in sample B is the first proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice. The A example is taken from Menu for Romance when Major is talking to his mother’s doctor. So in A, the dialogue is more about exposition than conflict—Major is giving the doctor important information about his mother, about his own life with his mother. In B, it’s one of the most conflict-filled parts of the story, yet it’s given mostly in narrative.

I know, it’s an unfair comparison to use a current work against a classic, but hopefully, you get the point, which is that there’s a psychological effect of the white-space that dialogue gives on the page that makes the reader believe that the story is moving forward, that there’s more action, more going on in the story than a page full of narrative does.

However, there’s a danger with dialogue, too . . . our characters can become nothing more than talking heads.

Think about it this way: if a screenwriter were to write a scene where two characters are talking about whatever it is that’s drawn them together in the story, but the director told the actors to just stand in one spot, and the cinematographer set the camera so that it just framed their heads as they talked to each other, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting movie, would it? Even if it were the best-written dialogue in the world.

Screenwriters depend on a host of other people to make sure that the intent behind the words they write gets portrayed accurately on screen—the director, the cinematographer, the actors, the location scout, etc.

As novelists, this is all within our hands. We are responsible for making sure the reader can see our characters—what they look like, when they react to something with a facial expression or body language, where they are located in the space, what setting they’re in, where they are in relation to other characters in the scene, etc. Again, this varies by genre—romance novels will have a lot more focus on the character’s physical presence, on what they look like, on where they are in proximity to the other character; mysteries will have more focus on the character’s location in the setting, on his interaction with the “props” surrounding him, on his observation of others’ body language/facial expressions; thriller/horror may have even more of a focus on the setting and surroundings.

But we also need to make sure that our readers know what’s going on in our characters’ heads as they speak. When I’m judging contest entries or critiquing and I come upon an exchange of dialogue that only gives the physical blocking (i.e., where the characters are in the setting, where they’re moving their hands, what facial expressions they’re making), my comments are typically along the lines of: But what’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? How does this accusation make her feel?

Usually, in a first draft, I have a tendency to go either overboard on giving the physical/emotional/visceral reaction during dialogue—or I just have dialogue with a little bit of stage direction. This is why revision is essential to dialogue. When we originally write it, we know the intent behind what’s said, the tone with which it’s said, the reaction it garners from the other characters in the scene. But when we go back, after having been away from it for a while, or when our crit partners get hold of it, we’re in a different head-space and will see where we need to fill in the gaps of emotional, physical, or visceral reactions. (Visceral referring to the deep, instincts each of us has–fight or flight, the uncontrollable gut reactions.)

So in your first draft, allow yourself to write talking heads, or to include lots of narrative with your dialogue. But when you revise, do it as if you’re walking a tight rope—too much dialogue may start dragging you down on one side, too much narrative on the other.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, October 7, 2008 1:44 pm

    With screenplays, you are still responsible for supplying a setting, but typically it’s a much more general setting since getting too specific costs more money. You’ll just give a very basic geography so the reader knows where everything is hypothetically. Once it’s time to actually film, the set might be very, very different from what you had imagined, but it still serves it’s purpose. This might also vary from genre to genre. If you’re writing a pirate epic, obviously they’re going to have to build everything from scratch anyway, so you might as well be as specific as you want. If you’re writing an indie drama, it’s easier to be vague and see what pre-built places you can find later that would work.

    The narrative you’re talking about is a commodity screenwriters don’t exactly get. You can have the occasional voice-over, but there’s no room to get into the psychology of explaining what characters are thinking about during every conversation they have. You can’t jump into a character’s head constantly to see what a specific touch or movement meant to them.

    95% of the information has to be in the dialogue. If you write into a script that “Mary gives a look of displeasure” who knows how that actress is going to interpret that once she’s in front of the camera. With so much information being put into spoken word, the real challenge is figuring out how to make it sound natural or at least interesting.

    Personally, I enjoy a good voice-over because of the book-like feel it gives, but it’s something you have to be careful not to overuse.

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  2. Tuesday, October 7, 2008 1:56 pm

    I’ve read books where I’ve found myself skipping over dialogue to get to the next narrative passage. Because there something was going to happen as opposed to a retelling of past events or inocuous conversation that adds nothing.

    Or, where I put the book down for a second because so much is happening via dialogue that the pace gets too intense. Then, I’ll re-read the dialogue to ground myself before continuing.

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  3. Tuesday, October 7, 2008 2:50 pm

    I tend to go overboard on the running internal commentary on the first draft, or I leave it out entirely. Hey, that’s what first drafts are for, right?

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  4. Tuesday, October 7, 2008 4:46 pm

    I think it’s Elizabeth George in her book Write Away who talked about THA techniques. As in, Talking Head Avoidance.

    I forget her point but I loved the label, because I could identify whole scenes and pockets of action (that I later loved) that grew entirely out of my desire to avoid talking heads.

    I imagine this is analogous to a conversation in a movie over a sword fight or while dancing. The action itself provides nothing new (or very little) but b/c we had something interesting to watch while we were listening, we got through the scene and collected the new information.

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  5. Jess permalink
    Tuesday, October 7, 2008 6:49 pm

    I don’t think I actually knew what “visceral” meant until I read this.
    Sad. But thank you.

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  6. Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:50 pm

    When I write longhand, occasionally, I’ll just put the character’s name before or after the dialogue if the story is really flowing. Because I know when I go to type it into the computer, I’ll revise it with an action tag or reaction or something.

    For a long time, I was having trouble just letting myself be a draft writer, but it’s coming a little easier to me these days, especially with dialogue. If I’m composing on the computer, somtimes I’ll just put a blank line where I need an emotion or reaction, then hook a comment onto it with a note saying something like fluttery or heart pound or other heart-y feeling needed so that I don’t have to waste the time to figure out a unique way of putting it while I’m in draft mode but the comment will remind me when I go back for revisions later what I was thinking.

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