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Do you embrace dialog or narrate your way around it? Why?
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With every written work, moderation and balance are the keys to a solid piece. My own style is a bit of what I call a chatty visual work. Being someone who is focused on screenwriting, not just novels, I tend to weigh dialogue as integral. Not all writers do. Many like narrative heavy work.
But, isn’t the narrative just a form of dialogue? It is the narrator talking to the reader–telling them the story. Yes. And, dialogue is an art unto itself. If your dialogue isn’t good, it can really take down a story (and if it’s great it can uplift mediocre narratives).
Have you ever read a Lovecraft story? Many of them could be characterized as dialogue, as they’re written in first person, post event story narratives. The narrator is telling you everything. First person, to me, is just dialogue. If pressed, I’d even say, it’s exposition. When you think about it, it’s just a person telling you everything that happened.
Exposition, supposedly, is the hallmark of bad writing. Show don’t tell is the mantra of writing classes and gurus. One solution to show and not telling is via the use of dialogue–especially in screenwriting. Certainly, you can still identify it as exposition, because it really is. Keep in mind: exposition is okay to a certain degree, like when you’re stuck on time and alternatives. But, yes, there is a way to really mess it up, and it’s easy to do. I find myself annoyed by television and movies that overuse the tool. Often it’s clunky and obvious.
My books use chatty visuals to get the emotions across along with the character profiles. They unfold the population of the book over time. How will they react to something? Think about this: how characters start doesn’t always predict how they will end, but tones are also a clue to feeling and meaning–the ever important inflection. Just as in life, characters in books show and hide as they will. how is it effective? One way is if the way a character speaks evolves over time. This suggests something to hear: a change in perspective, feeling, or something learned.
It’s much better to have a character say something a certain way to get across a sentiment than to say they feel a way about something. Yet, when another characters detects something is not quite accurate in what they see and hear, that is often an inner dialogue through narration.
Sometimes, they will challenge the other character directly. In that, the reader should detect a heightened emotion, the stakes are higher, and even character flaws like anxiety. A direct challenge is like a red flag. It informs readers how a narrative is likely to develop throughout the book: is this character high-strung? Are they dangerous? Is something upsetting them, and what is it? Will they be able to deal with what is coming, or will they suffer terribly for it? Will what happened cause a reaction that further drives the narrative? Does something need to happen to teach them how to control themselves?
A character is unlikely to get shrill without a bit of stress, unless you’re expressing that they have a lack of emotional control. This shapes the characterization. One should be mindful of how the characters are saying things and why, but also what they’re not saying. How do you not say something that should be known to the reader but remain unknown to the characters?
Reactions are unspoken dialogue. The body language (crossed arms, legs, a step back, a sigh, flicking through a magazine testily) of a character conveys chatty visuals well! In this way, you show, instead of telling: Margaret was testy at this statement. vs. Margaret snapped through the magazine in dour focus, wrinkling the fragile leaves. Likely before the snapping pages, she simply browsed them.
The balancing act of narration and dialogue is probably one of the places where writers most often fail. Not only is writing excellent dialogue a trick to learn, but understanding the pauses, the unsaid, and the usefulness of both to convey meaning is equally as powerful. Look to life for how to accomplish this. If the writing (dialogue or narration) is unnatural, it will fail with the reader. How do people converse? Everyone does know this. Yet, it’s the writer’s job is to capture it on paper. Word choices matter, just as in real life.
What does a chatty visual look like on paper? It looks like a movie in written form. That’s the clearest explanation I have. A chatty visual book is one where the dialogue snaps. It makes sense, sounds natural, and develops a deeper understanding of the character (whether they’re lying or telling a truth). Life isn’t spent in headspace alone. There are conversations throughout it. Communication is a human activity. There is a balanced duality.
If one wrote about a lonely man locked in a cabin in the wastes of an Alaskan winter, you might not have dialogue. For such a story, third person wouldn’t be most effective. A narrative first or second would likely be the best course. The dialogue-nature of the narration creates that chatty visual with which the reader can relate. Either they’re being told the story by the person who experienced it, or by someone second hand to that story. Either way, it’s dialogic. Right?
Balance, in the end is key. How a writer achieves that balance depends on the narration style. Of course, choose wisely how characters speak as well as what they say, because those words do the heavy lifting of characterization and propel the story forward.
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