Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dialogue vs. Narrative Prose

I am the first to confess that I love writing description. Drive me by a hillside of grazing sheep and maybe a stray butterfly floating on the wind (see, there I go again) and I will describe the heck out of it...for pages...and pages...and then maybe just one more...

This is what I've been told lately and so have been diligently working to correct this **ahem** flaw so to speak. It is painful for me to let go of any word (I love them so...) let alone whole paragraphs. And it has been a struggle to turn some of my narration into dialogue, but I do see the difference when I re-read. I do see my work becoming more "active" so to speak.

I still believe there is a place for narrative prose in literary works and sometimes wonder if perhaps some of my beta readers are comparing my manuscript to chick lit work or science fiction pieces. I know as a reader of literary fiction, I am forgiving (and actually enjoy) the paragraphs of description and detail but wonder sometimes if I'm the exception.

So tell me, where do you sit on the dialogue vs. narrative debate? What do you lean toward in your own writing?


  1. I am completely the flip side of this. I generally write the dialogue first, then the actions, and then add some descriptive pieces where I think they are needed to give an indicator about the characters. I only add more if a beta reader asks a question.
    I write very sparsely and rarely describe anything in detail. Not that this is the way to go about it - it just struck me how opposite our approaches are.

  2. Personally, I enjoy dialogue the most. However, it's enhanced SO much by a beautiful description here or there. I used to lean toward more description but now I lean heavily toward dialogue. I am still trying to find the balance.

  3. Barb, we have totally different approaches! I can't even imagine writing the dialogue first...I'm always surprised to hear all the different methods that go into a manuscript. And when the books are all done, you don't know which came first (the chicken or the egg type situation!)

    And I think Cindy is right on...there is a balance to be found for me, glad I'm not the only one looking for it!

  4. I like balance too. Maybe because I grew up not knowing or caring about the difference between "literary" and "genre". So what I really want is everything: literary that embraces the power of story, or genre with a respect for depth and beauty.

    This may shock you, Johanna, but you can find some pretty profound stuff going on in science fiction. Meditations on history, society, culture, the intersection of all of these with technology and religion: this is what the better science fiction is made of. Read Ursula LeGuin if you want to encounter the kind of speculative fiction that makes the literary world sit up and take notice. She is hailed as one of the greatest living stylists of the English language.

    Having said all that, description has to be extraordinarily well done to hold my attention. My eyes glaze over pretty quickly if it isn't. I could say the same thing about action sequences too: I just want to discover the outcome, spare me the mechanics. So in my own work, description tends to consist of a telling detail or two, and many of those get inserted in the second draft. The first draft is mainly narrative and dialogue. I doubt if anyone will ever praise me for my sense of place.

  5. Oh boy, now I've stepped in it! I definitely didn't want to imply that science fiction or fantasy is not intellectually stimulating or deep - quite the contrary! I think that on many levels it is too intellectual for me!!!

    I find that I simply don't have the imagination necessary to go where sci-fi wants to take me - perhaps explaining my need to over-describe!

    I will have a look at the work you mention, Janet! Always willing to give it another spin!

    Sorry if I offended anyone! :)

  6. LOL. I wasn't trying to make you squirm. I've always thought the supposed dichotomy between genre and literary fiction was mostly imaginary. For example, I just read a science fiction story that I thought was way too heavy on description. I fought my way through the first few chapters, because it had been so widely praised I was willing to give it a chance. It ended up being worth the effort, but he didn't make it easy for me. Even in painting, I always prefered the impressionists to the more classic painters, who seemed to fill the edges with so many irrelevant details. At least in a painting, I can examine those details when it suits me and maybe discover delightful things, but a book is linear and when I'm essentially getting a diagram in words, my eyes glaze over. So I don't really think this is so much a genre question, as a writing one. Tolkien is often criticized for being too heavy with description, but it never bothered me in his writing. It all depends on how it is done.

  7. Uh-oh, I guess I just let my tendency toward a guilty conscience out of the bag! Janet, you DID make me squirm...but that's good for the soul once in a while! LOL.