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Balancing Dialogue with Narration

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Would your novel play out like a silent film? Or would it be relatively unchanged if adapted to be performed on a small, empty stage? It’s unlikely that your manuscript hits either of these extremes, but the balance between dialogue and narrative may be off kilter all the same.


What does this mean?

Too much narrative indicates that the characters might not be engaging with the plot, let alone driving it forward. It could also mean there is an overwhelm of detail that simply isn’t necessary for the plot.

Too much dialogue might mean your characters are floating in a nondescript plain. They are definitely driving the plot, but they don’t interact with the setting. There might be a lacking emotional element to the work.


Post it notes in the shape of a thought or speech bubble.

Not just too much or too little

Talk about how a page of dialogue followed by an equal page of narrative still isn’t balanced. If your manuscript looks broken up into sections like this it is an indication that your character’s are not working in tandem with your plot.


The perfect balance

Used properly, narration sets the pace and enhances dialogue. It holds the action, reveals context and emphasises emotion. Dialogue pulls the plot along just as much as action does. If we are being purposeful with what our character’s say, it reveals snippets of the story. The perfect balance of dialogue and narration will create a perfectly paced and tensioned plot.


Fixing heavy dialogue

The scene lacks setting

It might be that you don’t have as clear a sense of setting as you do of the plot. If this is the case, use writing prompts to help develop the setting of your piece. Once your more grounded in the setting, you can work through dialogue heavy scenes creating a sense of place. As your readers speak, how do they interact with the environment they’re in. Does the environment have its own characteristics? Perhaps an intermittent gale means your characters need to occasionally shout.


The scene lacks emotion

Dialogue can be a strong vessel for emotion. But when you’re writing, you should pull in all facets to show how your character feels. Emotion drives motive, which drives plot. You can use similar writing prompts to help explore each character’s emotion in a scene. Are they being sufficiently portrayed by the dialogue? Can one character interpret the other’s emotion? How do they cause them to act? It is unlikely that your characters are standing in a fixed position with plastered expressions as they talk. So show your readers what is happening.


Can any other details be brought in

Depending on the type of narration you are using in your narrative, it might be useful to think what other context and detail you can pull in to conversations through the narrative. This can be a helpful place to weave in backstory to avoid infodumping at the beginning of scenes or chapters. Perhaps, the way a character says something sparks a memory for the protagonist. Or there is an interesting way of providing context to the speaker’s motives. Narrative isn’t just action. It is also all these little details that bring life and colour to the story.


Are they doing anything?

Try highlighting the action in a chapter. Everything that any character does, even if it is implied through dialogue. Are your characters talking about doing more than they are actually doing? The fix for this is chopping and rewriting. There are few circumstances where readers want to hear the plan rather than watch it unfold.


Fixing heavy narration

Is there any action?

If you have pages and pages of narration with no dialogue, consider what your characters are doing in each scene. It could be that the action is sparse. Like heavy dialogue, work through a chapter highlighting everything a character does. Are pages left largely unhighlighted? If so, it might be time to start editing down the exposition.


There’s action but no dialogue

Your highlighted pages glow like the sun, but still not dialogue. Take one scene and try this workshop. Try to convey the action of the scene through dialogue alone. Treat the scene as if it were a draft of a screenplay. If you need it, have a few stage directions here and there. But challenge yourself to work all that emotion and interaction into dialogue. Once you’ve done that, you can apply what you’ve learnt to your manuscript.


 

A well-balanced story will have your readers hanging on your every word. Every bit of dialogue will have impact and every bit of narration will have purpose.



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