Critique Technique, Part 34 — Imbalance Between Narrative and Dialogue

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OK, I admit it: saying there’s an imbalance between narrative and dialogue in a piece of writing is like saying there’s an imbalance between the ice cream and the banana in a banana split. For some people’s tastes, it’s not possible to have too much ice cream. Or too much banana.

But for most of us, there’s a sweet spot—pun fully intended—around which a little bit more ice cream or banana, or a little bit less, would still be OK.

The same is true of the balance between narrative and dialogue. Except that the range is wider. Much wider.

It’s possible to write and publish a story that has no dialogue whatsoever. I’ve done it. James Michener, I’m told, wrote hundreds of dialogue-free pages at the beginning of Hawaii.

The opposite—no narrative at all—could be done too, I suppose, but not easily. At some point, the speakers are going to have to be identified within the conversation. After all, even one “Bob said” or “Alice said” dialogue tag is narrative. Trying to avoid dialogue tags entirely runs the author into the name-calling and “as you know, Bob” problems I’ll discuss in later posts.

So what we’re really dealing with here is not a 100% of one or the other situation, or even 50% + 1%, which is way too mathematical, anyway. It’s a much more subjective but nevertheless real question: What is the balance between narrative and dialogue that tells the story effectively? How can you as a reviewer spot when the relative proportions result in a story that is not told well?

It’s also important to note here that this imbalance can show up almost down to the paragraph level. There’s nothing wrong with a single paragraph being all narrative or all dialogue, but problems can start to show up within just a few paragraphs, far below the level of a scene.

The central question is whether you remain engaged with the story. Does your mind start to wander? Do you start skipping material? Do you get confused and have to go back to reread a passage? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, that could be a sign that the balance between narrative and dialogue is out of whack. (It could be a sign of other problems, of course, but for now we’ll ignore those possibilities.)

“Too Much” Narrative

Especially in fiction, when a piece has a section that’s nothing but narrative, the author may be info-dumping or lecturing the reader. When that happens, the pace will drag or even come to a complete stop. Readers will skip ahead to where the action picks up again.

Similarly, large blocks of narrative can be signs the author is “telling” the story, rather than “showing” it. If he describes what a character thought or felt, rather than letting the reader experience those feelings or hear those thoughts, he’ll do it through narrative.

These are both examples of the dreaded “expository lump,” that carcinoma of words which, if allowed to spread, will suck the life out of a story. When you find one, it’s time to put on your best Lady Macbeth and with a cry of, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” wield your reviewer’s pen.

The key, again, is engagement: if a piece is filled with page after page of nothing but narrative but you can’t put it down, it’s working, and imbalance is not an issue.

“Too Much” Dialogue

Too much dialogue reveals itself in some ways that are similar and some that are different.

Dialogue can be an expository lump in disguise. In this case, a character does the lecturing instead of the author or narrator, by either making a long speech to another character or ruminating in interior monologue.

“Long” can be subjective, by the way. Just a few lines can feel long if they make the reader lose interest. On the other hand, if the reader has forgotten that she’s reading and is totally engrossed in the story, it won’t matter if a paragraph is more than a page long.

Dialogue can also get out of balance if the contents of the conversation are boring. Dialogue can be boring if:

  • it fails to move the story forward,
  • its relevance is not clear,
  • it deals with insignificant matters,
  • the characters are just exchanging information, or
  • the characters show no emotion or interest in what they’re discussing.

The common thread here is the lack of conflict. Effective dialogue has a spark, an energy that keeps the reader intensely inside the scene.

Dialogue-as-info-dump suffers from a similar problem but in this case there’s no opportunity for conflict because the speaker just won’t shut up.

Another way dialogue can be out of balance is if the author is using it, intentionally or otherwise, to avoid providing the kinds of details that narrative provides best. There are times when just a brief bit of narrative—describing a gesture that reveals a contradictory emotion, for example—can show what dialogue alone cannot, or cannot show well.

Relevant setting details are another example of good use of narrative rather than dialogue. If an author tries to have a character describe something verbally, it will likely sound stilted and awkward. She’s using the wrong tool for the job.

Finally, dialogue gets out of balance when the reader loses track of who’s speaking. Even if two characters are speaking with highly distinctive voices, after a while a reader needs a cue in the form of a dialogue tag to keep him on track. This is especially true when there are more than two characters in the scene.

Dialogue’s different and shorter sentence structure results in space on the page with no printing on it. This “white space” lets the reader rest a bit. Narrative can provide something similar. Small insertions of narrative—the dialogue tag, the descriptive detail—or just a one-line paragraph, also provide a restful break, however brief, that keeps the reader engaged.

Questions For You

How can you tell if a piece’s narrative and dialogue are getting out of balance? Ask yourself these questions.

  • Is the author lecturing or info-dumping, in either dialogue or narrative?
  • Is the author providing too much detail, too little, or via the wrong method?
  • Is the author telling what should be shown, or showing what should be told?
  • Are the characters discussing things that make the story drag or otherwise make you lose interest?
  • Is the author failing to mix the dialogue and narrative in ways that allow you to rest, even while you stay interested?
  • Does the author let you lose track of who’s speaking?

If you find any of these situations, be sure to let the author know and suggest alternatives.

What signals you that a piece’s narrative and dialogue are out of balance? I’m sure you’ll find the right balance when you put your suggestions in the comments box below.

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