1. astrostu

    astrostu New Member

    Apr 28, 2011
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    When to Use Dialogue, When to Describe via Narrator?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by astrostu, May 26, 2011.

    I try to use dialogue in my writing to add a little characterization, slow things down to give a blow-by-blow or have the reader slowly realize a point along with the characters, etc., but writing dialogue takes a lot of space and does slow things down.

    That said, there's something to be said for what could be done in dialogue in 5 pages could be done in narration in half a page. I don't necessarily want to bring the specific example I'm working on into this conversation (unless you think it's necessary), but rather I'd like to ask a more generic question:

    In fiction, what is/are your "rule(s) of thumb" for when to use dialogue versus narration?
  2. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

    Mar 9, 2010
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    Some random thoughts:

    - I think that information about personality and character is a high priority to show through action and dialogue, rather than sumary narrative. So "the building was poorly maintained" is probably a better subject for non-dialogue summary than "John is a controlling person".

    - Efficiency in storytelling isn't necessarily a good thing. If the reader enoys the five pages of dialogue, then they're probably better than the half page of narrative.

    - Those five pages of dialogue could--probably should--serve multiple purposes. They could further the obvious plot, further a less obvious shift in a character's personality or a relationship, introduce a new character that will be important later, and so on.

    - The "setup and teardown", as I think of it, of an event can often be skipped. So if the interesting stuff happens in the middle of the character's workday, there's no need to follow them from the alarm clock, the commute, greeting the receptionist, and so on. Even the beginning of the conversation may be skippable; you might be able to pick up in the middle and cut off as things start to wind down.

    2 people like this.
  3. popsicledeath

    popsicledeath Banned

    Nov 11, 2010
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    Eh, yeah, I suppose we could also save everyone the trouble of reading something like Romeo and Juliet by just saying: two lovers try to be together, but can't, so die instead.

    Just because you can accomplish information objectives in a shorter space, rarely does it mean you should.

    And really, narration doesn't have to be rushed and summarized. Good narration replicates a real-time pace, most of the time, working in scene, in the moment, not just summarizing action.

    The real question seems to be when to write in summary, effectively compressing time, and when to write in scene, effectively representing real-time, as those are actual distinctions, where dialog vs. narration is kind of like asking someone to choose between a pig and 8. So, when do you use pig instead of 8?! :p

    ChickenFreak covers pretty well when to use summary, and when scene.

    I will mention that much of what's published today is working in scene, and using summary to support scenes, not instead of them. My advice to all aspiring/novice/amateur writers is to learn how to write scenes, as you'd be surprised at how many advanced but not yet published writers still don't understand what a scene in fiction even is, much less how to write that way.
  4. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Nov 21, 2006
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    Coquille, Oregon
    i don't see how anything like that could possibly be distilled down to a 'rule of thumb'...

    switching between narrative and dialog is an instinctual thing for seasoned writers, the doing of which will vary from one work to another, according to the story's needs, so can't be turned into a formula of any kind and shouldn't be, imo...
  5. Lord Malum

    Lord Malum New Member

    Apr 22, 2011
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    Kansas City, KS
    I've never even noticed a need to break it down to a "rule of thumb" per se. I use dialogue when necessary and narration when necessary. When a character needs to say something, I make them say it. When a description of a setting or whatever may be the case, I use narration to get the message across. I'm a bit confused how this can be an issue.

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