Writing Narrative vs Writing Dialogue Copyright 2001, Michael LaRocca http://free_reads.tripod.com
One of nice things about being an author is that we can break any rule we want. (I just did.) It’s part of our job description. Language changes through usage -- definitions, spelling, grammar -- and authors can help it do this. But on other hand, we have to have some sort of agreement on language or we won’t be able to talk to each other.
When we as authors break a rule or two, it’s not because we’re ignorant. It’s because we have reasons to break them. That’s one of joys of writing.
Having said that, now I’m going to explain some rules. There are two types of writing in your novel. There is your narrative and there is your dialogue. The rules for two are not same.
For example, comma use. In dialogue, it’s not so difficult. Put in a comma wherever your speaker pauses in his/her speaking. In narrative, you have to consult style guides and hope that you and your editor, working as a team, can sort it all out.
A cop thriller like my Vigilante Justice has a simple set of rules for narrative portion. Third-person, straightforward writing, light on adjectives and adverbs, easy to read and grammatically correct. Sentence fragments are acceptable if communication is achieved, and you’ll note that I use them often in this article. Why? Simply because it’s more effective that way.
To a degree genre will help you identify what’s appropriate. For a cop drama, write in dry style of a journalist. For horror, a bit of hyperbole may be acceptable in most dramatic sections. For romance (not my genre), you can probably use lots more adjectives (swollen, heaving, throbbing, etc.) than you’d normally dare.
When I wrote Rising From The Ashes, true story of Mom raising my brother and I alone, I tried to adopt a “childlike voice” early in narrative. As character of Michael storyteller grew older, I abandoned that childlike quality. (An entire book of that would get old fast anyway.)
When I wrote An American Redneck In Hong Kong, humorous sequel, I once again used first person narrative. But narrative of Rising is first person only in that it uses “I” instead of “Michael.” It still follows all rules of “conventional” narrative. In Redneck, I threw most of rules out window.
I used what one author referred to my as “conversational” tone to maximum effect in Redneck. This fellow author felt like he wasn’t so much reading my book as just listening to me tell some stories over a few beers. That’s exactly what I wanted.
In Rising, while I was “first person” character, I wasn’t really book’s focus. In Redneck, I am. Center stage, in spotlight. Using more of a “dialogue” style in what should have been “narrative” allowed me to focus reader’s attention on first person to a greater degree than simply describing him ever could. You may love me or you may hate me, but you’ll know me and you’ll laugh at me.
If you want to see such a technique used to maximum effect, I recommend A Monk Swimming by Malachy McCourt. (I read it after writing Redneck, by way.) It’s about an actor who gets drunk and does very bad things to himself and his family, and it’s amazing just how much I laughed out loud reading about it. Doesn’t sound like a funny subject, does it? It’s not, and yet it is, thanks to his unconventional narrative style.
To tell you truth, I don’t even think McCourt “wrote” that book. I think he just said it all into a tape recorder and transcribed it later. It reads that much like “a guy at pub telling a tale.” If he used grammar checking function in MSWord, I bet it underlined every sentence. And, bright fellow that he is, he ignored them all and didn’t change a word.
If you’re going to use a more conversational tone in your narrative, don’t think that means you just write something down and don’t have to edit it. You still have to organize your thoughts, and that means rewriting. While your style may be unconventional, you have to make ideas easy for reader to follow.
(I’m not entirely serious when I say McCourt just spoke into a tape recorder, and even if he did that doesn’t mean rest of us can get away with it.)
I originally wrote Redneck in chronological order. It worked for Rising, and it works for memoirs and novels in general, right? Well, in case of Redneck, it was a disaster. Way too much “remember what I said before about…” and so forth. So while it was accurate, and while it was conversational, it stunk. I changed everything to more of a “theme-based” approach and that did trick. Still conversational and accurate, but organized. The ideas are as easy to follow as writing style, and that’s always goal. Ease of reading.
In case of narrative, you have choice. If you want to spotlight storyteller to maximum effect, you can go with first person and let storyteller’s narrative and his dialogue read same. If you’d prefer to “move camera” back a bit, make narrative conventional in contrast to dialogue. As a rule, this reader likes contrast, because he gets bored reading same thing over and over again unless style is really special. Or perhaps you can find a point somewhere between two.
Every story has a way that it should be told for maximum effect. Maximum effect in author’s eyes, of course, as it’s a subjective thing. Keep it in mind as you write. Make call, stick to it, change it if it’s not working. It might even be okay to be inconsistent, but only if you do so deliberately. Just keep stuff like “ease of reading” and “maximum effect” in mind and go be creative.
Have you ever read a book where narrative and dialogue read same? I hope you haven’t. But as an editor I’ve seen such things, and they’re very ugly.
Do you know why they’re so ugly? Because they remind reader of one thing an author does not want to remind reader of. Namely, that every character on page is a puppet under author’s control.
As readers, we put that thought aside so we can enjoy reading. “Willing suspension of disbelief,” to quote phrase an English teacher used when describing performance of Shakespeare’s plays. If author ensures that reader can’t suspend disbelief, book will not be read. Stilted dialogue is one of quickest ways to make that happen.
I’ve decided that writing dialogue is hardest thing we do. It’s certainly not something we can go look up in a style manual like Strunk or Turabian.
What are rules? “Make it sound real.” But with corollary, “not too real because people always say um and er and crap like that.” Oh yeah. That explains everything! End of my article, right?
Nope. I’m still writing it.
Ideally, greatest of great creators of dialogue will have every character “speaking” in a voice so distinctive that he/she need never identify speaker. Okay, that’s enough fiction. Back to reality. None of us are writing dialogue that well, are we?