Short Stories – Part 3

The Three Elements – Dialogue, Narrative, Description

The stories you write will be nothing without good dialogue and sentence structure. New writers tend to do two things with dialogue: they write too much, or they write too little. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, but it will come with practice. Having the right amount of dialogue balanced against your narrative and your descriptions will make for a better, tighter story.

Let’s take a closer look at Dialogue.


Your characters help drive the story forward, and what they say and how they say it is vital. As already pointed out, too many novice writers make the mistake of writing too much dialogue. This tends to make the story clunky. This not only slows the story, but it can hinder the entire piece and deter a reader altogether.

The idea is to keep the reader interested, so dialogue is also there to help characterize and impart necessary information. Incidentally, revealing information through dialogue cuts down on huge chunks of overloaded description as you try to explain things to your reader. Conversely, you don’t have to overload your story with dialogue. Learn to economise, especially if you have a set word count to work towards. Good, effective dialogue will speed up your writing (as opposed to bad dialogue bringing it to a complete stop), so pace is important.

Bad dialogue makes a bad story. So what is bad dialogue? It is the kind of dialogue that could bore your reader into a catatonic state, with 5 or 6 lines of speech that tell the reader nothing and is so badly set out that it could belong in a bad romance novel from the 18th Century. Avoid irrelevant waffle. Keep it pertinent. Remember, move the story forward, characterise and impart information.

To illustrate the kind of dialogue to avoid, look at the following example:

Molly approached her neighbour who was tending to her flowers. “Hello, Jane. How are the flowers you’ve been tending?”

“Oh, hello Molly. Aren’t they lovely? I’ve used a new feed for them. You pop it in the soil once a week and before you know it, they’re in full bloom.”

“Yes, they are rather gorgeous. I especially like those roses.”

“I got those at the garden centre. I bought two trays for a £1. Mind you, every time I go there I’m served by a very suspicious looking assistant.”

Bad dialogue like this slows the pace of the writing. Is it vital to the story what plant feed Jane used, or how lovely the flowers are? No? Then cut the superfluous dialogue and tighten the sentences. It is much better like this:-

“Wow, look at those flowers,” Molly said.
“Two trays for a £1 at the garden centre,” Jane replied. ‘To be honest, the assistant is always acting suspiciously.”

The second version is tighter, sharper, with less waffle. Clever use of narrative and dialogue should help move the story forward, not hinder it. When it comes to dialogue, narrative and description, a new writer will always ask – how much is too much or too little?

The simple answer is to look for a balance. Do this by varying the length of each element. Too much narrative may bore your reader. Conversely, too much description can slow down your writing, and by adding too much dialogue, you could irritate your reader.

Beware the Dangers of Purple Prose!

Many new writers fall into the trap of writing flowery, over the top narrative, and then overload it with overly long descriptive passages, because they wrongly assume editors and readers want to read this, but not so. Keep your writing clear and simple. Flamboyant over-the-top writing is known as ‘Purple Prose’ and is easily done.

Here are two examples:

Example 1

The wind gushed through the trees with maddening harshness, each leaf wavering as though caught in a maelstrom, and provoking the branches to shudder with a heavy, malicious sigh.

Example 2

The wind swept through the trees, made them shudder. Leaves rippled and fell to the ground.

The first example is over the top with description and is instantly contrived. The second example is tight and less flowery, just by keeping it simple and concise. Remember, you are looking for quality, not quantity. Avoid trying to be arty. If you keep it simple, the flow of the story will be easier to control, and you can convey the mood concisely while allowing the structure to remain tight. That said, do try to add a touch of poetic depth to the words and sentences you use.

Narrative and Sentence Structure

You are the narrator, the storyteller, so you need to keep your narrative interesting. You can do this by varying the length of your sentences to suit the pace and tone of the piece and avoid tedium.

Pace creates immediacy. Short, staccato sentences increases pace, especially for fast moving action scenes. Like this. It’s edgy. Punchy. Short, concise. But use them sparingly so you don't go over the top.

Longer sentences, on the other hand, will slow things down and allow the reader and your characters to reflect, and is very useful to allow the reader to breathe after action packed scenes. In essence, prose should naturally speed up and slow down. If you don’t vary sentence rhythms, then your story is in danger of becoming monotonous, and will lose any effect.

As well as rhythm, try to vary the construction of sentences. In English, the natural sentence order is subject-verb-object, for example: Jim pushed the bike. You should maintain this as much as possible to keep a certain amount of readability, but you can change the structure to add some depth to the writing by adding a subordinate clause: As Mark had pulled his back, Jim pushed the bike.

One thing I will say - avoid too many hanging participles in your work. Example: Turning, Maya saw the figure in the window.

This can make sentence clunky. Better to say: Maria turned, saw the figure in the window. This keeps immediate tension, whereas the first example loses all tension. My advice - use them sparingly.

Here are some useful tips on what to avoid and what to include.

10 Things to Avoid In Narrative

1. Cliché - avoid all hackneyed phrases.
2. Too many adverbs
3. Passive voice
4. Too many adjectives
5. Double adjectives - i.e use of two adjectives within a sentence.
6. Too many modifiers – “she rumbled”, “he snapped” etc.
7. The word ‘There’ - use a better choice of a verb, other ‘than there was a light in the doorway.’ Instead, try ‘a light flickered from the doorway.’
8. Double negatives – We don’t need no shopping.
9. Purple prose.
10. Simple grammar mistakes.

10 Things to Include in Narrative

1. Context - Make it meaningful; otherwise, it can lead to over writing.
2. Rhythm of sentences – vary sentences to keep the flow.
3. Reveal your characters through dialogue
4. Aim for clarity and simplicity.
5. Viewpoint – stick to it.
6. Obstacles and conflicts.
7. Indirect Exposition (Show, Don’t Tell)
8. Atmosphere and tension
9. The senses – remember to include the senses when writing.
10. Use metaphor and similes, but use them sparingly.

Next Time: Theoretical and critical reflection. Yes - get out the red editing pen!


  1. AJ, this is some sound advice. I've just recently started following your site and I'm in the process of reading your older posts. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and wisdom.

    Regards, David.

  2. Thanks David. I hope it proves useful in many ways!

  3. Love this post! So informative and to the point and in such a relatively short post too. I will be saving this to my favourites!

    Thanks AJ


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