Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dialogue and Narrative Writing

With each book, with each short story, we should grow as writers. As I write book 2 in the Daughters of the Potomac Series, 'Beside Two Rivers', I've been pondering what makes a story flow and glow. Dialogue? Narrative? Is it a balance of both? Or is it more dialogue and a sprinkling of narrative?

In her book 'Between the Lines' author Jessica Page Morrell states the following.

A reader's eye is naturally drawn to dialogue because it is staged, action-intensive, and auditory.

More importantly she writes: Rapid-fire dialogue with little or no extraneous information is swift and captivating, and will invigorate any scene. . . snaps and crackles with tension. Reactions, descriptions, and attributions are minimal. Don't create dialogue exchanges where your characters discuss or ponder. Instead, allow them to argue, confront, or engage in a power struggle.

I agree. Except that there are times when your characters will need to have a lighter conversation. Still, this should move the story forward. In 'Beside Two Rivers' my heroine Darcy has arrived at Havendale to meet her grandmother. Naturally the first person she meets is the housekeeper, an old retainer that has served the family for years. I did not want her to be a 'Mrs. Danvers' kind of character. Instead, she is lighthearted and welcomes Darcy warmly.

Their conversation is light, but it is leading up to a more intense conversation between Darcy and her grandmother Madeline.

Darcy untied the ribbon beneath her chin and removed her hat, while the servant took her cloak from off her shoulders. She noticed the look of concern when her eyes ran quickly over her clothing. “I walked a long way,” she said.
“Hmm. From the fork in the road I expect.”
“Yes. I hope I do not look too bedraggled.”
“Well, you’ve had a weary journey, now haven’t you? It’s a long walk from where they left you, so I imagine you are very tried, the brave girl you are to journey all the way from Mary’s land.
“I am. . .a little.”
“We’ve a warm guest room waiting for you. It has a comfortable bed, and I’ll bring up a tray of food.”
“You are very kind. But I’d prefer to see my grandmother right away.”
“Of course, and without delay.”

The dialogue then goes slightly deeper. Questions are asked and Darcy ponders the state of the house, why the downstairs is darker than the upstairs.


Downstairs the walls were paneled with dark oak, but the hallway upstairs held a warmer effect, painted pale yellow with large windows that allowed the light to flood inside. Darcy scanned the paintings on the wall and the pattern the sunlight made across it.
“This floor is very different from downstairs.”
“My mistress had the old panels ripped out after she married Mr. Morgan. . .


A sprinkling of descriptive narrative is enough to give the reader a visual image of the house, the walls, the staircase, and the windows. There is both a gloomy and an uplifting atmosphere, of two places that are complete opposites.

Narrative can build tension and atmosphere. Sprinkle it in with interesting dialogue and the merger of the two becomes one scene that will sweep the reader into the world of your characters and move your story ahead.

So in conclusion, where I have grown while writing this series is in depth of dialogue. I am now 230 plus pages into the manuscript.

What are your views on dialogue and narrative?
Do you prefer to read a novel with a balance of both? Or one more than the other?


Laura Frantz said...

Hi Rita, Wonderful post. I love narrative and so appreciate your skillful use of descriptive passages very, very much. Some of your wording took my breath away! Good narrative is sadly lacking in CBA fiction. I think our culture is so obsessed with the rapid-fire, video game mentality, that our books are being dumbed down to echo that.

Since I'm limited to 110k per book I'm finding that I am having to delete or slim down my narrative which makes me sad as that is what I love. Like you, I'm learning more about writing better dialogue. It's quite a workout:)

Melissa K Norris said...

I think if the narrative is written well and has a point to the story, then it is just as important. It's needed to set the mood or for foreshadowing. If the narrative bogs the story down, I do tend to skip and go straight for the dialogue. I think it depends on how well the author balances the two. You do a fine job of that!

Jessica Nelson said...

I love Victoria Holt. She used dialogue wonderfully. In fact, she'd have a whole page of almost nothing but captivating, intense, conflict-filled dialogue. But she also knew how to fill in narrative later.
We hear not to use too much narrative, but like Laura said, good narrative really deepens a story, whereas good dialogue intensifies a story. A balance is def. needed.
Thanks for sharing your excerpt!

Amy Deardon said...

Rita, happy new year! Congrats on your manuscript.

What a helpful and thoughtful post. Dialogue certainly moves the plot along. One rule I try to follow is have the character "never answer the question" --> he takes offense, or changes the subject, or something that keeps the scene and the reader off balance enough to stay interested.