Dialogue vs. Narrative in a Novel

When a novel is beautifully written, it’s easy to get lost in the flow of the unfolding tale without noticing the transitions between the storytelling techniques employed by the author. Yet a closer examination of great fiction reveals these writers succeed by creating a balance between the dialogue and narrative in their work. For budding writers, it’s important to understand these elements to apply them to their own writing.

Defining Dialogue

According to William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman’s “A Handbook to Literature,” dialogue is most easily defined as a “conversation of two or more people.” However, dialogue can also exist in scenes when a character is alone and talking to himself, or if only one of the characters present is speaking. So dialogue may be more precisely defined as words spoken aloud by a character in a scene as indicated by quotation marks. In a novel, dialogue serves to bring a sense of realness and immediacy to scenes by letting readers “eavesdrop” on characters.

Understanding Narrative

Narrative is a more difficult term to understand as it is often used, and misused, to define a variety of literary functions. Many equate narrative to storytelling in a way that includes exposition and description within the definition. While this is a widely accepted understanding of the term, especially in regard to narrative essay writing, fictional narrative can be better described in narrower terms. Narrative in novels, according to H. Porter Abbott’s “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative,” is best defined as “the representation of an event or a series of events.” Thus, to be considered narrative, the prose must describe some action or occurrence significant to the story. For example, “Jenny is covered in chicken pox,” is description, but “Jenny scratched at her chicken pox,” is narrative.

Keeping the Pace

Once a writer has a basic understanding of these two essential techniques, it might be tempting to plunge into writing Chapter 1 of his novel. But a basic understanding doesn’t equal the ability to utilize these skills. To determine when to employ each technique, it’s important to examine what each one does to the pacing of a novel. Narrative has a versatility to manipulate pace depending on how much ground the passage is covering in regard to the novel’s timeline. Narrative can slow the pace to describe every breath a character takes or speed up to cover a month of events in one simple summary. On the other hand, dialogue demands that the novel’s timeline come to a standstill as the conversation unfolds within the moments of a scene.

Blending Both Together

Learning to balance narrative and dialogue throughout a novel can be difficult, but the process gets easier when you understand how to blend the techniques. Within dialogue-heavy scenes, narrative can be used to set the tone and meaning behind a character’s words. For example, a character who says “I’m sorry” while yanking a brush through her hair has a vastly different tone than if she were kissing someone on the cheek. Long narrative passages can also benefit from the introduction of a lone bit of dialogue to show a character’s reaction to unfolding events without the need for an entire scene. For example, a lengthy passage about the successive mishaps of an accident-prone character might include just “Hide the china,” said by a nervous friend.

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