“Say What?”–A Delicate Balancing Act
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.