Getting the balance right in prose between Narration, Description and Dialogue.

DAgent

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So I'm about a quarter way through editing and re-drafting my work in progress and I've noticed even as far in as chapter 6, I have a hell of a lot of narrative where I'm describing things in quite a bit of detail. I am, admittedly a fan of painting a picture through words, but I realise this is not to everyone's tastes and it can be overkill in some situations.

As such I have trimmed out a load of text that I feel while nice and descriptive, isn't really adding anything to the story. Others I've condensed or merged with other bits of narration and yet I still feel like I have far too much narration and description and similar and that it might help break it up if there's some dialogue there. But, this is often in places where I have just one character all by themselves. And while having them thinking to themselves might help, I'm not sure how many readers would buy a character talking out loud to themselves for no good reason.

So, still very much a work in progress in getting that right, but has anyone ever found a good ball park balance between dialogue and narration etc that works for their writing?
 

THX1138

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I have run into the same problem myself at times and I'm not one to give detailed advice, but I would say to be descriptive to what is relevant to the setting or conversation at hand. It is difficult for me, like yourself, not to get lost in painting in words what I see in my mind. And I have done a lot of editing as well.

I am finding that for me doing the 75 word challenge in the in the Writing Challenges form has helped. (I've only done one, this months) I would recommend reviewing this and past months challenges and do a few on your own just for fun and practice. It might help in your narrative/descriptive. If you can bring a 600 word narrative/descriptive down to 150-200 and still get things across, then great! But there are time when that long narrative/descriptive wording may be needed. How many pages does one need to describe a single blade of grass? As many as it takes. Dialogue is the same too.

As for characters talking to themselves as apposed to thinking to themselves, think about how many times in movies and on TV do characters talk to themselves? Many times. Having the characters talking to themselves can help the reader into the characters mind and emotions on a one on one level. Plus it breaks the monotony of reading the long narrative/descriptive text.

Now being alone, he noticed an empty crystal vase in the center of the table. Looking closer he saw something strange.
"What is lipstick doing on the rim of a vase like this?" He questioned.
I think they are coming back, he thought to himself as he looked back at the door. Time to leave.


Says it all, but you can always add more to it! How would you rewrite that in your own writing style?

There is no right or wrong. As much as we want to paint the picture with our words for the reader, we need to let the reader paint their own picture with our story telling as the guide.

Just my simple though.
 
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Steve Harrison

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One method I use when I'm struggling (usually when I have a problematic and/or unbalanced chapter or section) is to copy and paste the writing concerned into a new document and highlight the dialogue and description, for example, in different colours.

This usually tells me which sections might be 'top heavy,' depending of course on the actual content, and I can either edit or break them up with more or less dialogue, or adjust the pacing etc. Or not!
 

Wayne Mack

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For me, one general guideline I follow is to limit purely descriptive text to a single paragraph at the start of a chapter or section. Often, I will omit even that. One thing that helps is if there is movement; this provides more reader interest than a description of a static environment.

Beyond that, I try to follow an idea from one of Brandon Sanderson's lectures; give each character one or two characteristics that may not be important to the plot line. This serves two purposes. One, it gives the character more depth and helps differentiate characters. Two, it provides a perspective for descriptive text. Consider someone walking down the street of some town. An architect would notice different details than an artist, a historian, a military strategist, etc. This allows the scene description to also reinforce the PoV character describing it. This makes it easier to jump straight into the PoV character's thoughts when describing a scene and gives the reader a justification for the character to be thinking about such things.
 

DLCroix

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In general, it is often said of a book with a lot of dialogue that it is a light book, and that one with large blocks of text and little dialogue is a heavy book; but that's all, that something is light or heavy does not make it better or worse. At least, IMHO, Gibson just screwed me over since he started with his books chapters in no more than five pages, and the so famous Sanderson when he wrote that Starsight crap.

Well, the point is that you're becoming aware of style, so all these aspects of dialogue and descriptions, POV, etc., are decisions that only you can make, because that is more or less what will define you as a writer. In other words, regardless of the conventions of each genre, each of us, whether we like it or not, have our own way of telling our stories. Some of us tend to multiply, others to decrease, others make Russian dolls in such a way that they insert dozens of parallel plots or stories within others. But everything, all that, I say, comes from a maturation of concepts and from you stopping a bit to think about what you really want to do and how you are going to do it, because in this way you will give your brain objectives to fulfill and little by little, without you realizing it at first, it will make you write in the way you set out to do. Personally, I don't see anything bad in you being too descriptive as long as you're able to tell me a story that grabs me from start to finish. After all you are the artist so go easy and let nothing stop you.
May the winds be fair to you, captain. :ninja:
 

DAgent

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One method I use when I'm struggling (usually when I have a problematic and/or unbalanced chapter or section) is to copy and paste the writing concerned into a new document and highlight the dialogue and description, for example, in different colours.
That's actually a method I've been using when editing as well, and usually go all school teacher and highlight everything in red, just like they did back in my school days.
 

sknox

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First, congratulations on having finished the draft! That's a major accomplishment. Revision is its own particular hell, isn't it?

I'm a firm believer in writing for yourself first. Tell the story the way you want it told, the way you would wish to tell it. If that means no dialog or all dialog, it doesn't matter. Tell *your* story and tell it the best way you know how.

You think you have too much description? Rather than focus on quantity, try looking at quality. Does it do the job you want it to? Can you craft it better? You could try having a screen reader read the chapter back to you (so there's context for the passage), or else read it out loud yourself.

Sometimes it really is about quantity, though. If on the read-through, you fell the story is dragging, you might look at whether you have "too much" of something. This can apply to dialog, btw, as much as to description. I'm only saying that quantity shouldn't be the only measure on a revision.

Another aspect should be mentioned here; namely, transitions. Moving from dialog to description to narration, in any order, requires attention, especially on revisions.

How do I get the balance right? See above: I write for myself first. If it isn't pleasing to my ear, I can't reasonably expect others to like it. Also, if it *is* pleasing to my ear and I try arbitrarily (because of some external measure) to change it, now I'm changing how I naturally write. Which means I'm going to get it "wrong" with every new story and will have to "fix" it. *Ugh.*

That said, once written to my own standards, then the thing goes out to beta readers. They will spot things I didn't and will make useful suggestions or ask useful questions. And I can rely on them not liking something I do like, suggesting changes I don't like. I take all this feedback and try to be as objective and critical as I can be in assessing what changes to make. Ultimately, however, even on the revisions, I still have to satisfy myself first. It has to look balanced to me first, in the same way the tune has to please its composer, the painting its artist. We are the first court of judgment.
 

Flaviosky

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I'm not sure how many readers would buy a character talking out loud to themselves for no good reason
Thinking aloud is not that uncommon, and it may happen when characters are tired or distracted-

But for the main topic, I usually rely on description when I want to slow down the pace a bit and also like @Wayne Mack , serving as good text when starting a new chapter.
 

Swank

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I personally find dialogue really slow reading as it takes up a lot of page space/eye movement time while imparting very little story.
 

Astro Pen

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All writers have different strengths and weaknesses, dialog, description, action etc'.
Make sure the wordier passages in your balance are where your strength at engaging the reader is.

As an exercise try 'evoking' a place rather than describing it. A few cues can say a lot. Seed the readers imaginations rather than presenting them with a detailed description.
 

Kerrybuchanan

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A few cues can say a lot. Seed the readers imaginations rather than presenting them with a detailed description.
This. When I’m editing for people I always recommend a light touch when describing people, places, atmospheres, etc. You can portray a surprising amount with a few words, especially if you remember to use all the senses (not all at the same time!).
If I said that I closed my eyes and smelled chalk and boiled cabbage with undertones of sweaty trainers (sneakers), it is almost enough to suggest a school. If I add distant voices and laughter, and maybe a playground song, it places it as a school for younger children. Echoing footsteps indicate a big space. The scent of wax polish suggests old wood, well cared for. Get the idea? Light touch. Hints. Respect the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps.
The same can be said for dialogue. Keep it light and natural.
 

DAgent

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Do you have a good local writing group? Being able to read out my work lets me notice when the audience is bored.
The only local group I've been able to find, at least so far meets once a week, and usually on a Saturday. Sadly, that usually happens to be the same Saturday I end up working my day job sometimes.
 

Mark_Harbinger

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I personally find dialogue really slow reading as it takes up a lot of page space/eye movement time while imparting very little story.
Dialogue that doesn't impart story is just poor writing. All dialogue should either: i) reveal something relevant about the characters, ii) reveal a plot point, or iii) be humorous/entertaining on its own.
 

Swank

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Dialogue that doesn't impart story is just poor writing. All dialogue should either: i) reveal something relevant about the characters, ii) reveal a plot point, or iii) be humorous/entertaining on its own.
I didn't say it doesn't impart story. I meant that it is the least page-dense way of conveying information due to standard dialogue formatting and conventions, so it seems to drag compared to exposition about what characters said.
 

Mark_Harbinger

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Okay, I think I follow. Although, for me, that makes it faster reading, not slower. Ultimately, I suppose it's all about what genres you're used to. :)
 

sknox

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Which reiterates the point that just about every technique and style will find its detractors and its enthusiasts.
 

Mark_Harbinger

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