Balance in Fiction Writing

Balance.

A few days ago, Ellen Gable Hrkach posted a great blog on common errors to avoid in writing fiction. One item she mentioned got me to thinking, namely too much dialogue.

What’s ‘too much’?

A lot of times that depends on the genre you’re writing. Clearly, screenplays and graphic novels rely almost exclusively on dialogue.

Novels, however, require a blend of narrative, description, introspection and dialogue. The ratio of one to the other changes with both prevailing ‘style’ and with genre. Novels written a century ago utilize long passages of description and flowery stretches of dialogue, whereas the trend today is for faster, tighter construction in all areas, especially dialogue.

How do you know if your manuscript has a good balance? Part of this comes down to voice, that elusive factor that makes your work yours. However, we’ve all had the experience of reading a book and finding ourselves skipping over passages, maybe even pages. If we skip too much, we’ll put the book down – and if that happens, we may never pick it up again.

Not good, if you’re the author.

Next time this happens, stop and analyze why you lost interest. Chances are there was too much of one element on the page. Too much description. Too much internal monologue, or perhaps too much narrative. Sometimes too much dialogue, but if that’s problematic, it’s more likely because the ‘voices’ of the characters are too similar. They need to be so distinctive that the reader knows who is speaking. Even so, if they go on for pages, the reader may tire. (For more on dialogue, click here.)

One helpful technique is to analyze your manuscript for the different elements and highlight the pages. Margie Lawson teaches a method for this in her Deep Editing classes. Choose different colors for narrative, description, emotion, dialogue, and internal thought, etc., then go to town with your highlighters (or crayons, or whatever your inner child wants to play with!). If one color dominates a page, revision might be in order. One of my critique partners occasionally says of my work, “This section has too much yellow.” Since we’ve both taken Lawson’s class, I immediately understand what the problem is. My work flows better if the page has a rainbow of colors. Another application of this technique is to apply your highlighters to one (or more) of your favorite published books.

Keep in mind there is no ‘one size fits all’ in fiction. Thank God! Otherwise, reading would get boring! Check out a wide variety of books to see how other authors manipulate the elements that create story.

For instance, action novels such as Lee Child’s Reacher series use lots of dialogue, but it’s nearly all less than one line long. Child also uses relatively long stretches of description/narrative, and he tends to go with one or the other at any given point. His books are effective, powerful, and popular.

Debbie Macomber takes a more blended approach in her wildly successful women’s fiction and romance novels. You will find narrative, description, introspection and dialogue on nearly every page.

Many authors are exploring screenwriting classes, some for the challenge of breaking into a new field, but most for a better understanding of both story structure and use of dialogue. While this is an excellent strategy for honing of specific elements, written fiction is more effective and more engaging when the entire spectrum of tools are used to create the final product.

The subject of balance also touches on pacing, which is a topic deserving of its own post. Narrative, description, and interior monologue can slow the pace—although skillfully applied, they can ratchet up the tension until it is unbearable. Dialogue tends to speed things up.

As you can see, there isn’t a cut-and-dried answer to ‘how much is too much’. But a willingness to analyze and evaluate your writing will always make it stronger. Look at your work with an eye toward what you want to accomplish in a given scene. Learn to use all the tools in your toolbox. Buy books on the craft of writing. Review them once in a while. Take classes. Be open to feedback from trusted colleagues, and then decide how (or if) you will apply their advice.

Find the best balance for your story and your voice.

Have you struggled with this aspect of writing? Do you have tips to share? Please do!

About Leslie Lynch

Leslie Lynch writes women's fiction, giving voice to characters who struggle to find healing for their brokenness – and discover unconventional solutions to life’s unexpected twists. She is an occasional contributor to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s weekly paper, The Criterion. She can be found at www.leslielynch.com and is on facebook and Twitter@Leslie_Lynch_
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17 Responses to Balance in Fiction Writing

  1. Caroline says:

    Excellent advice, Leslie. I thoroughly enjoyed it—again!
    RE: Next time this happens, stop and analyze why you lost interest.
    Thinking about a book I set aside last night, I realize now the reason I finally clicked off my Kindle—too much long, drawn out description. All black narrative, no white and black dialog.
    I’ll be sure to look at my work for this balance from now on!

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Isn’t interesting when the light clicks on? This was a real eye-opener for me. When I first started writing, I didn’t analyze anything; I just wrote. Once I understood there were ‘elements’ that could be manipulated, I began to pay more attention – and the first time I noticed the relationship between ‘balance’ and my willingness to continue reading, it really WAS like the flip of a switch. I got it. Then, once I made awareness of balance a more internal process as I wrote, the less I had to revise – at least on that point!

      Thanks for stopping by, Caroline!

  2. Don Mulcare says:

    Hi Leslie,

    Thank you.

    This Blog is a keeper. It deserves considerable study. Thanks for the leads and the encouragement.

    God Bless,

    Don

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Thanks, Don. I hope you find it helpful as you continue your quest!

      • Don Mulcare says:

        Hello Again Leslie,

        Are you getting snow down your way?

        I’d like to add a comment and ask a question inspired by your piece on Balance in Fiction Writing.

        The comment is that I find your message to be liberating. The author should do whatever works rather than limit literary devices to an established formula. Of course, publishers and as you point out, the readers decide if the writing actually works.

        The question relates to dialog. The experts often say that statements in dialogue should be limited to a few words to maybe a couple of lines. My problem is that my exchanges may run well beyond two lines of dialog. Perhaps that works in the telling of the story, perhaps not? What do you suggest a wordy author could do to control the length of dialog statements?

        Thanks Leslie,

        Don

        • Leslie Lynch says:

          Hi, Don! No snow – yet. Maybe Wednesday…

          About dialogue: Think about how you and your wife (or neighbor, etc.) talk. Pay attention to your next few conversations, especially if you can remember in different situations. Home, the grocery store, the car mechanic, etc. Eavesdrop at the coffee shop, without trying to catch anyone’s exact words. Listen for cadence, and give-and-take. You’ll most likely notice that no one ‘speech-ifies’, at least in casual settings.

          Once you get a sense of that, read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural, or do your eyes begin to glaze over at some point? If so, note where, and then analyze why. And if you can’t recognize that, ask a kind and trusted someone to listen so THEY can tell you where they started thinking about other things.

          An antidote to lengthiness is to have the other character interject a salient comment here and there, or add a ‘beat’, which is an action that breaks up the dialogue. (Make sure the beat flows with and enhances the scene.)

          Again, there is no hard and fast rule. I think the current trend of shorter sentences, etc., has more to do with television, movies, texting, and other types of contemporary media. We are used to quick sound bites, and we tend to want to read the same. It’s familiar.

          What you want to watch out for is the character who is narrating the story. That’s usually not a good sign. ;-)

          One last thought. If you have ONE character who tends to use long sentences and this is authentic for him/her, then play it up. Have other characters break in and say things like, “What’s your point,” or have them roll their eyes in exasperation.

          Hope this helps, Don!

          • Don Mulcare says:

            Thank you Leslie!

            As usual, you are very much to the point and extremely helpful.

            I’ll re-read some of the dialog with the longest continuous sections, see how they sound and try to bring in breaks without driving the train of though off the tracks.

            You should write a book!

            Lately, you have been getting more snow than us.

            God Bless,

            Don

  3. D. C. DaCosta says:

    I actually make a spread sheet for my longer works, with a column for each element: humor, description, dialogue, tension, introspection. If a chapter has too much of one, I have three choices:
    - eliminate it altogether (if it’s not plot-necessary);
    - move it elsewhere within that chapter…or to another part of the book;
    - rewrite it in a different style. Dialogue can be a “punchier” way of explaining what’s happening; description can be a more relaxed and subtle way of achieving the same thing.
    Incidentally, women’s fiction and romance pretty much always use all the elements…on the same page. Personally, I’m not a fan, because the structure of the story is “showing”. The trick, IMHO, is to build a story on a structure and formula that only the English professor will notice.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Interesting idea, D.C.DaCosta. I hadn’t thought of spreadsheets in this way. In fact, this is the first time I’ve come across it. Unique application of an easily available tool! And it’s a great method for stepping back to look at the ‘big picture’, so you can choose how to integrate the elements. Each, appropriately used, can create the desired effect – sort of like using different brushes in a painting.

      I know lots of authors use some form of outline/timeline/grid to track the elements that need tracking. Spreadsheets are free, and eminently customize-able. For those who are interested, software programs (ranging in cost) are available to keep track of research, ideas, and whatever else one desires.

      Regarding romance and women’s fiction: Everyone is entitled to their preferences in genre. If you regard a ‘happy ever after’ ending as being formulaic, well, then I guess you’re correct. Authors like Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber have sold millions of books worldwide, so clearly their style appeals to someone. To each his (or her) own. The point of this blog is for writers to find guidance to improve whatever genre it is that they write.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your technique for achieving balance in your work!

  4. Sandy Loyd says:

    Great post. I think every writer has to determine how to blend all of the elements for a good story. Thanks, Leslie.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      That is very true, Sandy. And there’s a lot of allowance for differences between genres – as well as for individual author’s voices.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Excellent post, Leslie! You are so right when you say there is no ‘one size fits all’ in fiction. Keeping a good balance between narrative, dialogue, introspection and emotion is extremely important. And I love the idea of using different colored markers! Thanks again for the great post!

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Thanks, Ellen, for YOUR post, which prompted the subject of this one. Glad you find the colored markers helpful. Besides, they are a lot of fun! :-) Sometimes we get so intent on our craft that we forget to enjoy ourselves…

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Mary says:

    Good article. Lately my own writing has been feeling very stiff and awkward and I wonder now if it’s because I’m using too much dialogue. I know that my own best passages are always a natural alternation between dialogue and description/narration/inner thoughts. The marker idea is interesting…I might try it.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Glad you found something of interest, Mary. It’s always a plus to recognize one’s strengths, and I’m finding that once the light goes on about my weaknesses, it’s easier to see and correct them. Let us know how it works for you!

      Thanks for stopping by – and for taking the time to make a comment!

  7. Leslie Lynch says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Don – but I learned everything I’m passing on from other, very excellent books! But never say never, I guess!

    Blessings,
    Leslie

  8. Bill Hubert says:

    This is going to be very useful for me thank you very much for posting