Saturday, December 5, 2009

Writer's Workshop: Narrative and Dialogue

Have you ever picked up a book and started reading it only to find paragraph after paragraph, page after page of narrative but no dialogue? There comes a time in any story where the reader is going to rebel if not given some face-to-face interactions. Just ask anyone who had the wherewithal to read James Michener (Reader’s Digest condensed version doesn’t count!)

The balance of narrative to dialogue is crucial, especially in horror. Horror can withstand a helluva lot more narrative than one would expect in other genres. I used to write romance and if the hero and heroine weren’t interacting, you lost the reader. In horror, however, a person can be isolated with their own thoughts, trapped in a cell, wandering the halls of an abandoned asylum. The mood and atmosphere I wrote about in the last post in this series shows how vital those periods of narrative are for creating the ambiance of the story and the tension.

How does one transition from narrative to dialogue? Well, not ham-fisted like TV news shows trying to segueway from one story to the next. The best way, as always, is to show you a couple of samples and see if you can figure out where they went right and wrong.

Sample 1: The dogs barked and circled the hard packed ground beneath the floodlight. The horses rushed to the other side of the yard. Something threatening was afoot. Within the halo of light in the arena, dirt floated in puffy clouds, obscuring something darker beyond.

Hayley grabbed her riding crop and approached it cautiously, trying to discern just what kind of creature had invaded her sacred place. The horses butted up against the metal fencing, snorting loudly.

“Shh, it’s okay.” She whispered gently to them as their eyes rolled wildly in terror. “It’s okay.” She repeated, more to comfort herself than the horses.

Sample 2: “Are you being big babies again?” Hayley hollered at her horses. “I’m not coming out here every time you make noises.” She scolded.

The arena was dusty and messy. The dogs ran in circles barking. The horses remained on the far side of the arena. It was just one of those kinds of nights. Everything seemed to just go crazy at once. It looked like something might be entering the fenced in arena, but it was hard to see just what it was. Now, she understood the animals’ outburst.

What’s the difference?

The first one takes us into the scene to wonder what the heck is happening and then the character comes in with her own concern for what she’s seeing, almost as if she’s joining us in the arena going, “did you see that?” We see how the environment reacts to the threat and then with the tension built, the heroine arrives to have to handle whatever it is in a climactic challenge.

The second sample took us right into dialogue with no context. We don’t know what she’s barking about until we hear a description of the scene and then we need to go back to the dialogue to see how she’s handling this strange event.

There are times when diving into the dialogue first is appropriate. Consider this scene at a party:

“Can you imagine? That guy is 15 years younger than her! What is she thinking?”

The gossiping partygoers were doing a miserable job of not looking directly at the leggy redhead. Their eyes were darting back and forth as fast as the drinks were being raised to their pinched lips.

If you have something intriguing to say that can pull the reader in, this is often times a good technique at the beginning of a story or chapter. It’s a way to stumble into the scene without seeing it from beginning to end, but entering the middle when the action is happening.

There’s nothing more boring than explaining a person’s full day from sun-up to sun-down in a narrative. Pick your moments that either bring across relationships, routine, novelty, or intrigue. We certainly don’t need to know about their bathroom visits or tooth brushing unless it somehow brings across a sense of character. In my short story “Drained,” the rigid character Holger’s hygiene routine was part of showing what type of person he was, “First, turn down the bed, gather up his pajamas and socks, go to the bathroom where he would undress from his work clothing and lay out the pajamas while he took a shower for precisely 5 minutes, followed by socks first, underwear next, bottoms, and then top, brush his teeth for two and a half minutes, floss, cleanse his sinuses with a neti pot of warm saltwater rushed through his nostril and out the other. Clear his throat, blow his nose, and turn out the light.”

Just remember the reader can allow narrative for a page, but we better give some interactions that demonstrate rather than describe what’s going on.

In terms of writing dialogue, it’s a tricky thing. I’ve found that you need to keep the reader up to date on who is speaking. That’s crucial. You can get away with dialogue with no tags to explain who’s speaking if you have either a character with a portrayed accent that makes it obvious who is talking or you have two people with such opposing views that it’s obvious who is taking what side in the discussion. Still, after about three times of not telling us who it is, you better tell us who it is or we have to go back and count the back and forth to figure it out. Try to pace this. Here is a bad example:

"She's going to have to be fired." Jim announced.

"But she just started two months ago, how are we going to explain that?"

"We should probably review her phone usage and see if maybe we can get her on taking too much leisure time."

"Or we could see what the other workers in her office have to say about her habits."

"That's probably a good idea. Why don't I review the phone logs."

"I'll talk to the workers."

"We can go from there."

Now, that the conversation is over, without peeking, can you tell me if it was Jim who said the last line or his buddy?

You don’t want “she said” after every entry. You can also break this out by putting who’s speaking before or between what they’re saying. Example below:

“I don’t want to go.” John announced. (tag after it)

“You don’t have to.” Peter agreed. “It’s a huge party. No one will miss you.” (tag between)

John shifted in his seat and finished his drink. “Thanks.” (tag first)

As far as the content of dialogue, remember to keep it within the educational levels and region the person is from. If we’re talking California teen, “like” might be about every third to fourth word. If we’re talking about a southerner, “ya’all” might be in the mix. It’s difficult sometimes not to intellectualize dialogue. Most writers are well read and have a vast vocabulary. Keep that to yourself. Your characters might not be of a background to use beautiful prose and obscure vocabulary. You have to be willing to get in the trenches and talk like the common man.

One really effective technique that shows a seasoned writer and one who can make the reader feel part of the action is to show what they're doing through dialogue, rather than description:

“Just put that down please. No, not like that. Like this. It’s not a toy, you know.”

Do you feel like you know what just happened without having to tell the reader through narrative?

Today’s lesson reminds me of my favorite comedy show of all time, the “Carol Burnett Show.” She used to have a fantastic scene about a writer. She’d sit at her typewriter and write out a story and the story would be acted out as it’s written--literally. So, if she wrote “Evelyn flew across the room.” The character on a wire would fly across the room. If she wrote “Daniel hammered his fist against the wall,” the character would take a hammer and pound his hand against the wall. It was pretty hilarious to watch and it did actually impress me as a young writer to really stop and think about how I describe things. I tried to find a film clip of this online but couldn’t anywhere.

Happy writing!


  1. hey, autumnforest!~! i like these 'hints'...they're helpful! thanks!!

  2. Hey Libby;
    I'm hoping sooooo much that you write a book. Your writing voice is so clear and pure and your experiences so fun and real. I have my eye on a few bloggers I think are potentially very promising writers. You are one of them!

  3. aw, autumnforest, thank you! sometime i'd love to do a book...but at this point, my memory's better than my imagination, you know?