Authors: Do you prefer writing Narration or Dialogue? Why???

1382970_talking_guysDialogue: one of the craziest things about being an author, for sure.

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.

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66 responses to “Authors: Do you prefer writing Narration or Dialogue? Why???

  1. I’m a huge dialogue fan.. which is funny because it used to be the other way around. I was blissfully unaware of my many tendencies to murder narrative with my perfectionist ways, and so I -seemed- to think it was much easier to write. However, now that I’m older and a bit wiser, I find I enjoy writing dialogue more. I’ve never really had a problem getting into my character’s head-space to write convincing dialogue like some authors seem to have… of course part of that may be due to the fact I write in 1st person. For some reason, that seems to make it easier to forget about being the narrator. I don’t have to worry about which character’s voice I’m currently narrating or if i’m breaking walls. For a few short hours I simply AM my character, and then it involves no thought at all. I react, and it writes itself. Now if only my OCD would shut off, and i’d have the best of both worlds!

    • I hear you!!! I love your point about first person narration being very connected to dialogue. I have an entire post about that and focus on it in my writer’s handbook (at the start of my narration chapter). You are very true: when you’re in first person, everything comes from that character’s voice.

      I write third person, but I’d like to give first another chance somewhere along the line.

  2. I love dialogue, perhaps because I enjoy talking to people so much. At school I always preferred studying plays to novels and I think that can be contributed to my love of dialogue too. As an editorial intern, I have to say it’s very noticeable when dialogue isn’t good. It ends up distracting me and drawing me out of the story. I think it’s well worth the effort for writers who have trouble writing effective dialogue to work on improving their skills. Obviously, they’re going to need to read the chapter in your upcoming book! 😉

    • That’s a great point: it can be VERY noticeable when dialogue isn’t good. When it doesn’t sound natural, or every character speaks the same…. I have to spend a lot of time shaping dialogue during edits to make sure everything sounds “real” enough. Dialogue is key, and it’s something that will stick out whether it’s well or poorly written.

  3. I prefer narration over dialogue, in reading as well as writing.

    • that’s awesome. I love people who read and write differently than me and focus on other things! 🙂 There’s a lot to be gleaned from a well-crafted narrative segment. I’m much more impressed by the writing skills of those who can keep me interested through a long narrative passage rather than through dialogue. I guess that’s because narration comes harder for me.

      • That’s interesting, I really have difficulties to follow a longer dialog, without getting lost in what says who and for what reason.

        Narration seems to be the natural way of saying things as they are. Dialog seems indirect.

        • When a reader gets lost concerning who is saying what then the writer isn’t doing his or her job. Each character needs to speak more distinctively and more dialogue tags are needed. Backstory can be difficult to pull off in dialogue, but it can work.

          I think it comes down to “show, don’t tell” for me. If you can write *good* dialogue you can show and/or imply a lot of things. Narration generally involves telling, I think. (Of course, you can also imply things through narration to some degree. For me as a writer, it’s easier to do that in dialogue.)

          I think both dialogue and narration can be indirect. It depends on what the author does with it. I don’t think dialogue is by nature more indirect than narration. But that’s just me 🙂

  4. I can’t really say that I separate them. They’re all just part of writing for me. Even dialogue has a certain amount of narration, as you describe what the person thinks about the conversation, what they’re doing, what they observe etc.

    I write in third person too, and I don’t see that as external narration, I’m in a certain POV, and I write from that person’s POV. If I’m writing about my character’s mother, I’m careful that they think in terms of ‘my mother said’ rather than by that person’s name, but when I swap characters, I use the person’s name instead.

    • That’s so cool, Rinelle! Thanks for outlining your approach to third person narration, because it’s different than mine. I love your structured and organized approach to dialogue tags there…. while I focus on letting the narrator drift into the shadows, you focus on connecting him/her with the character he or she is following. I love that!

  5. Hmm, I meant I think in terms of ‘her mother said’, as ‘my mother said’ would be first person!

  6. I don’t know if I prefer one over the other, but one of my goals when I write is to use dialogue effectively to propel the story forward.

    Some other thoughts on narration vs. dialogue: When I’m writing, I always hear in my head that quote from Elmore Leonard, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip” and imo, narrative paragraphs are often the parts that people skip.

    One last thought on dialogue: I try (as much as possible) to write dialogue in such a way–and this is a very neat writing challenge, I encourage everyone to try it–without dialogue tags, i.e. the reader should be able to identify the character by what is said. If I’m able to do it, then it means the character I’ve created is distinct and has their own “voice.”

    • that’s a fantastic challenge! I feel like I need some tags to keep things structured, especially at the beginning, before people get to know the characters. But you’re definitely right that dialogue should be identifiable to the character because we all speak differently.

  7. I LOVE writing dialogue. You can do so much with it – develop characters, lay out plot points, explain your world (if you write sci-fi or fantasy). Narration has its place, sure, and at times is unavoidable, but if you can do it with dialogue – do it! 🙂

    • I’m of the same mind. NOTHING like a character who brings a witty, sarcastic comment out of nowhere. It’s fantastic. Dialogue is so much fun to write and to read! I much prefer it.

  8. This is one of the big issues for me when writing. I like to set the scene and to do that narrative works best for me, but, i am aware that narrative passages can get elongated, so i try to break it up with dialogue.
    The thing is in many of the books i read, there can be ten or more pages of narrative without a single piece of dialogue and i enjoy it and it isn’t out of place.
    Creative writing tutors i have spoken to go bonkers when they see more than a page of narrative and get very “heated” shall we say.
    If the narrative fits, then it is fine, often i manage to change the pace of the dialogue with sentence length and word use, this works, but i do think there is a danger of creating “clone” books where it is all trying to stick to a formula that is the current vogue of the day.
    If the writing is good enough and the action frequent and believable, then i see nothing wrong with narrative. After all, if you read a good spy novel, there is narrative a plenty
    Good provocative post Victoria

    • I love your point here about how different styles work well for different writers, and it is, for sure, not prescriptively wrong to have a long section of narration if it is interesting, well-paced, and well-written.

      Narration CAN keep interest, as you note. It’s not dialogue’s ugly step sister!!! I appreciate you stepping in to defend narration so well because I do prefer dialogue in my writing.

      I’m sorry your creative writing tutors flip their lid about narration…. people in a guidance capacity to a writer should always respect that writer’s style. I definitely get why you wouldn’t want to write formulaic clone books!

  9. forgingshadows

    I prefer dialogue myself, to the point where I tend to overdo it. I like having a mix of dialogue and narration. After all, if I’m writing something action-y it’s not terribly likely that the characters are chatting as they rush after a criminal, or go full-on into battle.

    Usually when I’m revising a novel, I remove pieces of dialogue and add in pieces of narration. So dialogue is easier for me in the moment.

    Karen’s suggestion of removing tags is something my old creative writing teacher used to say, and I absolutely 100% agree.

    • People can definitely overdo tags as well as direct address. And I love your comment here about situations where lots of dialogue doesn’t quite fit (like a huge action scene.)

      That’s when I generally switch to following a character’s thoughts. That can do a LOT of the same stuff dialogue does, stylewise, while being more true to the moment.

  10. I’ve always been more comfortable with narration, as I’m more adept at description than with dialogue.

  11. “Dialogue throws the pressure off me and onto the characters.” I agree; that’s one of the reasons I prefer to write dialogue. I’ve not much thought about it in a dialogue-v-narration way like this post, but I know that, for me, dialogue just flows better. I like that you said it puts the character in charge more.

    • It really does. And I LOVE that. I love, too, how we writers tend to recognize and drift toward what we do well even without being conscious of that 🙂 You describe that so well here. Thanks for dropping by!

  12. Definite dialogue fan. I worry when I do narration because I never know if it’s too much or too little, especially when describing an overall setting. With dialogue, I get to bring out emotion and I don’t have to worry as much about grammar. People talk with broken grammar all the time, so it confuses me I’m expected to write everyone talking in perfect sentences and word usage.

    The big problem I have with dialogue is that characters tend to monologue in order to explain things. It’s worse in the first book and gets better as the world is flushed out. Yet, it’s still an ‘issue’ at times.

    • I agree: that’s a big problem with expository dialogue. I have a whole section in my dialogue chapter on that because it’s a struggle for all of us–especially us fantasy writers when we have to world-build.

      I also love how dialogue gets to ignore grammar rules. A big relief 🙂 You’re right: if people are expecting perfect grammar in character’s speech, I don’t know who they hang out with in real life? Frasier and Niles Crane??? People don’t talk grammatically.

  13. I much prefer dialogue. I think interaction between characters is by far the most interesting part of any kind of novel.

    It’s a great opportunity to make your characters deeper, and show the nuances of their personalities.

    Descriptive text rarely comes to me as easily as dialogue between characters does.

    • I’m the exact same way!! I love how dialogue characterizes for me with such ease and often a sense of grace…. it’s almost effortless. Just let the characters talk how they’d talk and they’ll naturally reveal who they are.

  14. I wish I could remember where I read it (I think it was in a writing advice blog like yours), but it gave an example of dialogue between a man and a woman talking about another couple`s pregnancy. What was great about it was how you had to read between the lines of what was being said, in that the man was intimating, without directly verbalizing, the fact that he didn’t
    want a baby, as opposed to the woman hinting that she did.
    The example was showing how dialogue works best if what the character is saying is not straightforward, but hinting at something deeper. Am I making any sense? 🙂

    • you are making TONS of sense 🙂 thanks for your comment and for dropping by: you’re so right, I LOVE when dialogue (and writing in general) is subtle that way, showing things and hinting at them without knocking you over the head with it. That’s fantastic writing and what I think we all strive to do. Some of us to greater success than others. I still have problems with it a lot of the time.

      • Precisely, “don’t knock the reader over the head with it”. I always try to be watchful of that. We have to give our readers the credit they deserve, and assume they can figure some points out for themselves. 🙂

  15. I’m a fan of dialogue, especially witty banters between characters. However, I like there to be a balance between narration and speech, and sometimes I struggle with that, throwing in unnecessary dialogue where simple narration would’ve been sufficient. Thank goodness nobody has to publish a first draft. 😉

    • hahaha, TRUE STATEMENT. 🙂 my first drafts have a lot fo that too. It’s all about finding the balance, and that definitely requires more than one go and a lot of shifting things around.

  16. I love writing dialogues. Then in first-person narratives. SImply because I function better when I ‘feel’ the characters. I choke as I my characters weep and smile when they laugh. If I dont experience the emotions while I write, I feel those pages missing sometthing that I cannot exactly convey. May be Im being weird but it has worked for me.

    • I totally understand! You’re not weird at all. It is SOO important to feel connected to our characters. That’s a good thing: I’ve dedicated a post in the past to how writing increases our empathy and helps us feel for real people in the real world, through training us for that.

  17. I raise my hand for dialogue- it comes naturally to me and my characters are always squabbling, laughing and talking with each other about something when I swoop in and write everything down. I think, as long as you get the first draft down of your story with free writing (without editing or re-reading parts) then you can go back to it and revise and redraft to put in your narration and fix dialogue and action, because that’s what writing is about- rewriting.

    • Great point: it really is all about the editing and rewriting. Writing is probably 90% or more reworking what you already have. It can be frustrating but it’s so worth it!

  18. Dialogue comes more naturally to me, because I thought I’d be a playwright when I was a kid, so I started writing skits then. So I paid attention to dialogue, especially inflection. When I switched to short story writing and then to novels, writing narration was difficult. I didn’t understand how to make it interesting. And then I read Tolkien’s and Dickens’s books. Suddenly narration became interesting. I read their books over and over, trying to learn the mechanics of good narration.

    So, I tried to improve. But you know what? I still have a lot to learn. Many times I leave the character out of narration. I’ve plunked a section of description into a story, thinking that I had to describe the setting in some way, even though the description stuck out like a swatch of silk on a pig. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this. But over the years a few advisors took me aside and pointed to the need to integrate the narration with the perspective of the character.

    • That’s a great point: narration does tend to come best from the perspective of the character at hand. That took me a while to understand. But sometimes you don’t need as much description as you think you do. I consider it, in a lot of ways, a matter of stylistic preference how much detail of the background of a scene you give.

      I like to leave some things up for my readers to create and personalize. Sounds like you do to 🙂

  19. I love writing dialogue. It’s so fun to get in the characters’ heads and try to figure out what they would realistically say in that situation. Pro tip: don’t create a character who never speaks in contractions. It’s a pain to edit, not to mention you’re so focused on making sure there are no contractions that you tend to skip right over the actual content of that character’s dialogue.

    • oh my gosh, DEAD ON. I can’t stand it when characters don’t use contractions. It’s a pain and it never reads smoothly. Even if it does make sense for the character (which is RARE) it doesn’t flow. Ever. Pain to read and to write. Fantastic observation, Michelle. Thanks!

      • Hahaha and here’s the part where I confess that I decided to have one of my characters talk that way, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Still, he does have a very distinctive way of speaking now, so … partial win? 😀

  20. I much prefer dialogue to narration – it has a much more active feel and it brings the characters alive.

    Plus, I tend to get lost or even a little moody/maudlin with narration, which isn’t necessarily appropriate for the piece!

  21. I prefer dialogue, mostly because I feel like it’s the best way to show character. Or, that is to say, the strongest characters I’ve read have been revealed through dialogue.

    • I agree completely. That makes me think especially of Mrs. Bates (Emma) and Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice) for some reason, and their inability to shut up and how that exemplifies their characters, because they go on and on out of insecurity or toadiness.

  22. I seem to have a problem in that area, and I’m working on it. My issue is that when I write dialogue, it seems to come out so stilted. I really admire the author that can write a narrative so beautifully that I can smell the roses in bloom or hear the ripples of the water as it comes to shore, but narration is also a problem due to the “show, don’t tell” that you mentioned earlier. I think that I am going to prefer dialogue too, if I can ever get it to sound right! 🙂 Maybe this is something that is gained over time with practice?

    • Practice makes a HUGE difference. Reading my dialogue out loud has also always helped me a lot. I know exactly what you mean about your dialogue feeling stilted…. my often feels that way to me as well, especially in early drafts and my earliest works.

      • Thanks Victoria! I’ve been hearing that a lot. I saw this just today in an instructional book on writing short stories..the author said in editing any story, you should read it aloud and hear how it sounds to the ear. She said that you could read something a dozen times and miss it, yet if you read it out loud, your ear will catch it. So, I will try this. Thanks again! I am so much looking forward to reading your writing handbook! 🙂

  23. Yeah, dialogue has my vote. I’m so bad at narrative description: I’m on my third draft of my novel, and I still need to go back and figure out how to add more narrative description to the story.

    I typically write every scene with a single POV character, and even the narration is from that character’s perspective. If the POV character doesn’t think it or sense it in some way (seeing, hearing, etc.), then it doesn’t go on the page. I believe it’s called a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Everything on the page is either an external or an internal dialogue. The “narration” is just what the POV character is doing, thinking about or observing at the time, blending right in with the spoken dialogue as heard by the POV character.

    With my style, I have to worry about having enough narrative to give the reader a sense of time and place. I have to think harder about what the POV character might be thinking or looking at or the sounds heard in the area and insert those thoughts, sights, sounds, etc. into the character’s stream of consciousness in an unobtrusive way.

    I also have to take care not to overuse spoken dialogue to explain the setting or deliver other details usually handled in narrative. When I read over some of the dialogue I’ve written, I can see places where the character is going into “detailed explanation” mode, and their words don’t make for realistic dialogue. So then I have to edit the detailed explanation out of the dialogue and figure out some other way to make it known to the POV character. Sometimes I just leave it at whatever the other character has to say, and let the reader try to make sense of it, just the same as the POV character must. That works out well if more about the subject comes out later. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s not that important to the story after all.

    In my current WIP, I’m following only one POV character around from chapter one to the next-to-last chapter. In the last chapter I switch over to a different POV character, which allows me to give additional insights to the reader and wrap up the story in a way that I couldn’t with the original POV character, because the original POV character doesn’t know in the end how *everything* turned out.

    • “Detailed explanation” mode is TRICKY. Man, I find myself writing that far, far too often. It’s the WORST. And like you, I’m too scant with setting description and use dialogue as a substitute.

      I love how you describe your POV though, and what you do with narration in your third person POV, using your character as the lens. That sounds spot on to the lit grad student side of me. Lots of my favorite books are written that way 🙂

  24. I can’t say I have a preference over the two because I use both in my writing. Although I can say that I feel that I have used dialogue more often in my writings, I’m still an amateur writer and I hope to develop my style and figure out what I do better.

    • that’s always a great goal and a first part of the process! Sometimes dialogue and narration can be rather similar in style, too, for an author, which decreases the distance between them. I mean, if you write first person or your third person narration follows a character really closely.

  25. Reblogged this on Authors Helping Authors Resource Site and commented:
    Thanks to “Creative Writing with the Crimson League ” for this friday reblog post. They certainly deserve an AHA moment !

  26. I dislike author narration, and would rather have as much of the information come from the characters perspective as possible. Obviously you cannot provide detailed event history from character narration, or backgrounds on organizations which contribute to a ever larger event or organization.

    That will have to be done by the author narration, yet some technical details like presenting a tactical plan before a battle, could be done by a commanding officer reviewing their plan of action, rather than the narrator telling me. It builds a bond between the read and characters, even a second or tertiary character. Even if this tertiary character will only be in the novel for a chapter, long enough to ring the warning bell before dying… I would rather read as much of the novel as possible through their thoughts and actions.

    Case in point, when I write background information and cannot escape narration, I involve another character, any character, even if it is their dismissive thoughts like reveling societal information. This not only adds to my characters, and their perception of that information, but it adds to the story by exploring my characters perception and societies perception. Does my character cut against the social grain, or does he go along, to get along?

    • I agree it always more artsy and feels a bit clever to reveal things without narration narration narration. Sometimes a simpler approach works better, but creativity can work just as well, if not better. And why do we right if not to be creative?

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