Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

Two people talking
Photo by Ambro, courtesy

This article introduces a series on narrative and dialogue. Stated most simply, narrative and dialogue are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

What Narrative Does

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monologue, that is, the character’s thoughts, which is sometimes shown in italics.

While it’s true that dialogue can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader. Here’s an example.

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”


On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialogue—I published one that had only internal monologue; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

What Dialogue Does

One reason that dialogue is so effective and important is that we engage in dialogue every day: we talk to each other—or at least to ourselves. Characters need to do that, too. Dialogue:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says and how he says it reveals what he knows, how he’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how he perceives another character, and so on.
  • Builds or relieves tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.
  • Allows the reader’s eyes to rest. Individual lines, and even full statements, of modern dialogue are often much shorter than similar lines and paragraphs in narrative. That lets the reader’s eyes move less as they scan across the page, and move more quickly down the page. This white space on the page is actually physically restful. It helps the reader keep reading instead of getting tired.

In short, dialogue is essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialogue also appear in narrative and vice versa. But there are some problems that are unique to dialogue, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, I’ll look at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Rough language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialogue;
  • Name-calling within dialogue; and
  • Using dialogue to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start.

No Questions for You

No questions for you this time, other than to ask what other problems you’d like me to discuss in this section. Add your suggestions in the Comments below.

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