Do your readers lose consciousness ploughing through pages of narrative description? Or are they perplexed and bewildered because your snappy dialogue leaves them wondering just who is talking to who? It's time to get your narrative/dialogue balance right. Here's how.
Most stories have two basic elements: Dialogue and Narrative. Narrative also has two main purposes: to inform the reader and to describe a person, place or thing. Getting the right balance between Dialogue and Narrative will lift your story, giving it bounce and adding interest.
Modern readers in general prefer a story that moves along with a fair degree of alacrity. If not, they soon get bored, and when that happens your novel is history. That's today's book reader for you; spoon fed on fast action films and TV with perhaps little time to read anyway. But maybe the readers you are aiming at are more relaxed and cerebral and are quite at home with a slower paced tale. But which is right for you and your readers?
Take a careful look at published books or stories of the type you are writing yourself and gauge what proportion of the text is dialogue and what is narrative. Compare what you see with your own writing and note the difference. It is vital that you get this right or you may fall between two stools.
And this is where dialogue comes in. Too much and the reader can get lost and disoriented. Too little and the reader can get bogged down and toss your tome aside.
TOO MUCH DIALOGUE
If your story has too much dialogue it is not unknown for readers to loose track of which character is speaking. And you need to avoid too many 'he said', 'she said' or 'said Mark', 'said Hermione'.
An excess of dialogue can be wearing and you may need to intersperse the conversation with snippets of movement or description. As for example:
'Maria looked up from her work. "So that's what you think of Grimble, is it?'
Carla nodded. 'He's passed his sell-by date if you ask me'.
Introducing that small movement 'Maria looked up from her work.' activates the reader's imagination and gives them a picture to lock onto.
Imagine two characters having a heated argument. To break this up you could say something like:
'A removal lorry shuddered to a halt in the street outside followed by the blare of a horn from an angry motorist. Ronald fumed over to the window and shut it with a crash.'
This gives us movement and description, not only of the character Ronald, but of the traffic outside, which, incidentally, also echoes the turmoil going on inside.
TOO LITTLE DIALOGUE
If you find you are filling up page after page with too much narrative you may need to ask yourself these questions:
Does this piece of narrative add to the storyline or is it superfluous?
Would the story or plot suffer if I left it out altogether?
You may love to describe the start of a new day with three paragraphs of purple prose but these could be saved by simply saying:
'Gail drew back the curtains and sighed dispiritedly as she took in the grey clouds and pouring rain.'
You can also use a character's dialogue to add a descriptive element. In some instances you could cut out a wordy flashback with something like:
'I often think about those hazy summer days when you, me and Dave used to wander over the downs picking the buttercups and daisies. Then we'd lie down by the pond in that little grove of trees. Remember? Lovely. I wonder what ever happened to Dave...'
But often you simply have to be cruel to be kind and axe those sections of narrative that add nothing to the story so that your narrative/dialogue balance is right.
And when you do get it right, believe me, your readers will warm to you and want more.
(c) Mervyn Love writes on several topics including creative writing. His website Writers Reign has a mind-boggling array of resources, articles and links to keep any writer happy for hours.