Writing Tip #26: Action, Dialogue and Narrative - The Dynamic Trio

Image source: kudybadorota on Pixabay, edited with GIMP

Let’s talk about how to achieve a balance of the three components of fiction — action, dialogue and narrative.

There are a number of things that are total “buzz kill” for fiction:

  • Too much narrative, especially early in the story.
  • Too much dialogue. (The reader thinks: stop the yacking and do something!)
  • Not enough action. Ha ha, you thought the third thing was going to be too much action, didn’t you?

To find the right balance of these three things, think about them a bit like traffic lights: action is green, dialogue is yellow, and narrative is red.

Let’s Start with Action — Green

Writing too much action into your story is kind of hard to do. We want action. We want to see characters in movement. So more action is generally good.

However, don’t just fill your story with boring action. Having a person just walk here and then there in order to punctuate the dialogue tends to sound stiff and mechanical.

That said, a certain amount of mundane movements can be very effective to set the scene or to make us feel embedded in the setting. For example - someone stubbing out a cigarette, patting a baby’s back to get it to make a burp, or setting a washed plate in a dish rack. These are all actions that can help keep us grounded in the story, and in what we should be “seeing.”

And that is a very useful trick in a story that is not what you might call “action packed.” For many stories, there isn’t going to be a robbery or a shooting, or anything highly dramatic that occurs, so you’ll want to make use of those kinds of actions throughout the story.

Use action to bring scenes to life, and to show us how your character behaves and what is happening in the story. Things must happen, right before our eyes, for your story to be effective.

Now Let’s Talk About Dialogue — Yellow

Finding balance with dialogue can be challenging. If you’re writing a very short story, it may seem difficult to find a place to add dialogue. But it’s really critical for your characters to speak or your story will come off as “telling,” vs. “showing."

Dialogue is one of your best tools for bringing your characters to life. What they say and how they say it will give us a sense of who that character is. Do they shout? Do they laugh or open their eyes wide while talking? Do they lapse into their native Spanish when frustrated?

Get your characters talking when it can help inform readers of something important, when you want us to see a personality trait, or when you have an opportunity to tell part of the story through characters talking to one another.

And Finally, Narrative — Red

Narrative is important. So “red” is a bit extreme. But of the three components, it is the one that is most important not to overdo because you will lose the reader. They will not continue reading if the entire story is told as narrative summary. (Note that we see this quite a bit in The Ink Well.)

Narrative summary is a mechanism for moving a story forward. It is a way to fill in the larger story, outside of what the reader can learn from action and dialogue. It is also a tool for getting your reader from here to there, either geographically or in space and time. Action can do the same, but narrative is a better option if your character is not doing anything active at that point in the story.

There is no perfect way to combine these components, but when you think about the mechanics of them, you will find that you can switch between action, dialogue and narrative to suit the story’s development.

Putting It All Together

Let's look at the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Pretty much everyone knows this story. Little Red Riding Hood goes to visit her grandmother. This involves a combination of narrative describing who she is and why she's in the forest, and action as she moves through the forest and arrives at Grandma's house.

The wolf, who has eaten the grandmother and plans to also eat Little Red Riding Hood, is dressed in Grandma's clothes. We learn this through the narrative.

Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf exchange dialogue as Little Red Riding Hood comments on Grandma's unusual features. Then the wolf proceeds to eat Little Red Riding Hood (action).

Finally, a wood cutter comes and rescues Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood (action), exchanges dialogue with the two, who are unscathed from the experience of being devoured by a wolf, and as I recall something bad happens to the wolf.

As we have seen here, the three elements must flow seamlessly — each providing a piece of the story when it makes the most sense for the telling of the story.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

Writing Tip #17: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writing Tip #18: Don’t Be a Copycat (Plagiarism is Wrong)

Writing Tip #19: Hook Your Readers

Writing Tip #20: Lessons in Tense Part 1

Writing Tip #21: Editing Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Writing Tip #22: We want to hear from you! What do you want to know?

Writing Tip #23: The Value of Workshops and Feedback

Writing Tip #24: What Are Plotters and Pantsers?

Writing Tip #25: Do Short Stories Have to Have a Plot?

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