You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed gettingย  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?



23 responses to “You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

  1. Great discussion, Christi! I just finished writing a post on keeping your writing real (not really boring), and dialogue is one of the prime offenders I mention. Love this from Fitch, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.โ€ I agree! I really enjoy reading intriguing/entertaining dialogue, and when writing…like you mention, it’s sometimes hard to restrain myself from letting the conversation continue. It should be written in a way that makes the reader *want* to eavesdrop, and last just long enough so that it ends before they’re ready to take their overturned empty water glass off the door.

    Balance is key — you’ve highlighted some interesting strategies~

    • Amanda,

      “…written in a way that make the reader want to eavesdrop….”
      Boy, I love that as much as I love Fitch’s quote. And, I can’t wait to read your post. I am subscribed, so I’ll be watching my email! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. I also loved that line from Fitch … it’s pithy enough that it will stick with me when I’m editing dialog. Your posts always have such a wealth of other links, I don’t even know where to start! Thanks.

    So, I think I’ll start with Amanda’s post on keeping my writing real.

    • P.S. Post is written, but it’s in the queue ๐Ÿ˜‰ …soon~

    • Cathryn, I might have gotten a little link-happy on this one ๐Ÿ™‚ The three articles/posts I mention are the most important, for sure (ones I’ll refer back to often).

      • That was a “thank you” not a complaint ๐Ÿ˜‰

        • Oh, goodness. It was just funny when I read your comment before. I looked back over the post and saw all this blue, blue, blue scattered throughout (at least that’s how the links show up on my screen), and I thought, Phew! Girl….

          I did have a pretty heavily caffeinated cup of coffee yesterday just before I finished that post. My fingers were working double-time!
          *clickity clickity clack clack clack*

  4. Gosh, I hope I have the proper balance. Dialogue almost always comes first, and easy, for me. I don’t worry about it much because I think it always has a purpose essential to the story. And my characters are usually in action while speaking, sometimes just for realism, but often in support, or sometimes in contrast, to what they’re saying. Now, of course, you have me itching to double-check. But I can’t. I sent my book to my editor with the promise I would keep my hands off until she’s through with it. I am making a note to check later. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    It sounds like you have a solid plan, Christi. I wish you well on sharpening up your dialogue.

    • Linda,

      Lordy, don’t double guess it. Pick up that coffee instead of that manuscript (or is it tea?) ๐Ÿ™‚ You’ve worked so hard on that novel, I’m sure it’s well-balanced in all areas! It’s so exciting, too, that it’s in the editor’s hands. You’re getting closer! I can’t wait to read it ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Terrific post, Christi.

    I’ve always believed dialogue in books should be much the same as in film — if it doesn’t propel the story forward or bring in tension, I slash it.

    • Thanks, Beth. I like your point that tension (which, for me, goes beyond conflict) plays a part in successful dialogue, too. I suppose I can create a conversation that pulls the reader through the scene, but without tension, the reader might get bored.

  7. Good points to consider when I begin my revisions … again. I know for certain that I’m heavy on the narrative, but the dialogue I have was likely forced just because I knew of my inclinations. I need to check that.

  8. I want to “like” all these comments. Is this a problem? Excellent post, Christi!

  9. But what if I really really (really) like coffee!?
    Just kidding.
    Great information. Am sharing it now ~

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