Frequently I see new writers make mistakes in their writing by choosing the wrong writing tools for the job.
Now, the writing tools that I’m talking about are narration, dialogue, and description. These are the three main tools that we use in telling a story.
In narration, we simply tell the reader information, often without appealing to the senses.
In dialogue, we create the exchange between characters speaking.
And in descriptive scenes, we are given all of the detailed visuals, audio, scents, emotions, and tactile sensations that bring a scene to life.
So, what do I mean when I say that people use them incorrectly?
Writing Dialogue when You Should Narrate
For example, often I’ll see a writer who wants to tell the reader something, so instead of just telling the reader, using narration, he has two of his characters talk rather idiotically about a topic that they both know so well, they’d never really have that conversation.
For example, you might see something like Winifred the maid saying, “As you know, it has been seventeen years since our master left his estate here in England to travel to Africa. I sometimes wonder if, when he returns, I will even recognize him. . . .”
The butler, Alphonse, then replies, “Well, since he will be here tonight, you are sure to find out. I just wonder what he will want to be served for dinner. After all, having lived with the pygmies all these years, his tastes are bound to have changed.”
This kind of “maid and butler” dialogue was popular with playwrights in the 1800s as they sought to set up their tales, but it’s frowned upon with modern novelists who are expected to adhere to higher standards. We want the dialogue to sound more natural, to duplicate what people would actually say.
In a novel, if we wanted to get that information across, instead of using dialogue we would go simply into narration. We would tell the audience the information from the point of view of the narrator. “When Lord Douglas sent letters that he would be returning to London after his 17-year sojourn in Africa, the house staff wondered if they would even recognize him anymore. The photos of him dressed in grass skirts, living among the pygmies, were almost universally blurry, and none had been taken in over a decade.”
In short, if you need to convey information quickly and there is no other way to do it, we might find that narration works well.
Dialogue is great for creating conversations where we learn about characters, deepen motivations, discover character’s plans, or see them react to surprising information. Dialogue is always rich in auditory detail, but it doesn’t work well for supplying information that is common knowledge.
Narration is needed when we need to convey information to the reader that is simply “known” by the protagonist. For example, we might slip in something like, “Among the pygmies, Lord Douglas had learned to call all older women ‘mother’ as a term of respect, and so when he first saw the maid Winifred at the door, he beamed widely, shouted ‘Mother,’ and gave her a heartfelt embrace in true pygmy fashion.” (Gosh, this sounds like a dreadful novel!)
Of course, many tales are told almost entirely in narration. I’ve often felt that Nathaniel Hawthorne was a master at narration, and in his short story “Young Goodman Brown” we see it used to great effect. “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.” (I recently discovered that Nathaniel Hawthorne and I had the same grandfather on my Hawthorne line, and so I feel a need to help hawk his work.)
Narrating when You Should Describe
With narration, we often don’t get much visual or auditory detail. Instead, the story is simply told. Information is imparted, and nothing more.
The author is “telling” the reader what is going on, but not showing the action with visual, aural, or emotional detail. Because of this, very often a writer’s narration can seem lacking, as if the writer is trying to portray the world through a filter. It can be stifling or lifeless.
Of course, a good narrator understands where to put in the proper audio, visual, and other sensory details to bring the narration to life, but those who don’t give enough detail will often have readers beg them to “Show, don’t tell!” When you see that comment, you know that the reader is asking you to write a full scene rather than supply a narration, which often simply skirts past the detail.
Very often, between scenes we might have even only a few words of narration in order to “set the upcoming scene.” For example, perhaps in one scene we have a character who has had a tragic accident. In the next scene we might have his wife rushing to the hospital, and we just need a little information to swiftly let the reader know the setup. “Nineteen minutes after learning about her husband’s accident, Marilyn drove in a daze into the hospital parking lot.” This little bit of information is simply a “transition” inserted to let the reader know that time has passed between the last scene and to indicate that Marilyn will be the viewpoint character for the upcoming scene.
While narrative is often sparse in detail, remember that you can add lush details of images and sounds into it. Writing a rich narrative is a skill that every author needs to master. On many occasions, I find that new writers who write beautiful, evocative scenes just don’t know how to handle narration. Usually, if they tried to learn the skill when they began writing, they had some creative writing teacher give them a good beating for it. Remember, narrating beautifully is a skill that you really do want in your writing toolbox, just like dialogue and scene creation.
Writing Description when You Should Narrate
In writing a descriptive scene, we typically try to appeal to all of the senses in order to bring a story to life. In a good story, we feel the protagonists moving purposefully through a landscape. We hear the sounds around him or her, whether it be the natural sounds of the world, the bustle of a busy street, or a conversation with a nearby companion. We see the images that the protagonist sees, taste and smell what they do, and feel the world through their skin. We might even delve into the protagonist’s mind and listen in on their internal thoughts. As readers, we are meant to “live through” the scene along with the protagonist.
Yet from time to time, I see authors write full scenes when they should be narrating. The author might have a protagonist for example walking home after an important business meeting. The protagonist may have some brooding thoughts and insights, but the reader recognizes that nothing important is happening. The images of rain-soaked streets and a meeting with a vagrant might be beautifully drawn, but ultimately we find that the scene doesn’t move the story forward very much, if it moves it at all.
Writing Dialogue when You Should Describe
Sometimes I will see a writer have a protagonist tell another character about something that happened recently. For example, I might have a character tell his girlfriend about how he got in a huge argument at work, got fired, and then was so angry that he slugged his ex-boss.
When you find yourself writing about some exciting scene through dialogue, you’re really losing an opportunity. You need to stop writing the dialogue and instead go ahead and create the scene.
My new online workshop “Writing Enchanting Prose” will be starting this coming Saturday. We’ll be introducing a whole new set of online classes that will teach you to master descriptive scenes, narration, dialogue, creating hooks, and using other skills to entrance your readers. We’ll also have a weekly meeting online where you’ll be free to ask questions about the lessons or any other writing topic, and of course you will receive feedback from me on all of your writing assignments.
Also, my brand new classes on “The Advanced Story Puzzle” will begin this week. I have recently updated this class with all new recordings, and we’re expanding the curriculum to teach you different methods of plotting stories.
Sign-ups for my online classes, the Advanced Story Puzzle and Writing Enchanting Prose, are now available at MyStoryDoctor.com.