Writing dialogue is never a simple process–especially when you’re dealing with a character who’s too dang witty and sarcastic for his or her own good–and always involves a lot of editing. Still, I prefer dialogue to narration: more on that in a moment.
Dialogue’s on my mind because I just edited, and substantially updated, the dialogue chapter in my writer’s handbook that I’m still hoping to release on July 31st.
It’s become one of my favorite chapters. I discuss how in dialogue, by and large the rules don’t apply. I discuss how dialogue can aid characterization. I discuss what pitfalls you should look out for when you use dialogue for exposition purposes, and I talk about character catchphrases, dialogue tags, and direct address.
I added more examples to the chapter, one from my own work that I feel pulls its weight, and another from Cervantes that I just adore and hope will really get my readers thinking. (YEA for that Master’s in Spanish lit doing something for me, ha!)
One important thing I don’t address, though, is how dialogue comes easy for some writers and is more painful than a stomachache for others.
DIALOGUE VERSUS NARRATION
As a writer, I’ve always tended to separate fiction into two segments: dialogue and narration. More or less, every part of a novel falls under one or the other of those categories.
Most writers, I think, prefer to write one over the other. Either a writer feels more comfortable (and is more gifted) writing narrative passages, or s/he’s better at dialogue. One tends to come more naturally.
Personally, I prefer writing dialogue. Dialogue throws the pressure off me and onto the characters. The burden of action isn’t as heavy on my shoulders. I feel somehow less responsible for the content.
Narrative passages are tougher for me, because I’m such a perfectionist. I feel like there’s much more at play. I’m constantly doubting myself, asking:
- How am I varying sentence structure? Am I doing that enough?
- Are contractions okay?Am I using too many?
- Am I rambling? Do I have too much information here?
- Is my narrator drawing too much attention to himself? (I use third person and prefer a narrator who keeps to the background). Is the narration sounding pretentious?
- Would this sentence, this paragraph, work better elsewhere?
- Is everything flowing?
- Am I explaining everything fully? Am I leaving the reader with questions?
I feel more confident, I guess, writing dialogue because my tendency when writing (and my philosophy about writing) is always to follow the characters. I prefer when they’re in charge. And when I write dialogue, they’re the focus.
That’s not to say dialogue isn’t also difficult in its way. It definitely is. But for me, the process of developing dialogue is simpler than developing narration.
When writing dialogue, all I need to focus on is what a character would say, and the way s/he would phrase those thoughts. While that’s challenging, and can be frustrating, and I’m always manipulating things in little ways behind the scenes, I feel as though I have to juggle fewer things at once when I write dialogue.
I’ve always felt as an author who writers in third person that my narrator is me, in a sense, inserting myself into my novel. And I hate doing that, even though it’s necessary from time to time. I might write for me, but my fiction isn’t supposed to be about me.
Because I’m better and more comfortable with dialogue than with narration, I have few scenes that don’t involve dialogue to at least a sizable minority. Most of my scenes have more dialogue than not.
Why? Every writer needs to learn to maximize his or her strengths and minimize the weaknesses. If narration isn’t your strong point, you’re better off finding a way to give backstory through a logical and attention-grabbing conversation, or a flashback of a conversation, than through narration.
Of course, no writer can avoid narration entirely, and I wouldn’t want to. But I do, when I can see an option between dialogue and narration, choose dialogue almost always.
What about you? Do you prefer writing narration or dialogue? Why? Which do you feel you do better? Have you noticed an author that you like is better at one than the other?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. And don’t forget, if you aren’t already following my blog and you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page.