Which is More Dynamic - Narrative or Dialogue?
It’s a question that’s often asked. Which is more dynamic – narrative or dialogue? And if there is a difference, should you use one more than the other?
Dynamic storytelling means the story has varied pace and can move forward at the right moments – something that’s lively and active. There are two elements that do this – narrative and dialogue. But what about description? Unfortunately it doesn’t move the story along – its role is to describe scenes to the reader. Narrative and dialogue, however, do move the story forward.
We think of narrative as simple explanation, with no real importance. It’s snippets of information to prop up the story, which may explain why it isn’t often thought of as dynamic. The smaller those informative bites are, the better. Readers pay more attention to small amounts of information rather large chunks of it. These smaller packages of narrative help move the story along to a degree, but not nearly enough as dialogue would.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is naturally seen as dynamic because of the immediacy it creates, and because it’s present tense. Dialogue fuels the story, it increases pace and moves things along and it creates the perception that it’s ‘now’ or ‘of the moment’. It happens in real time and it delivers the right information to the reader in the least amount of time.
For these reasons, dialogue is one of the best tools for moving the story forward.
The thing about writing is that it’s all about balance. Writers should look for a balance of narrative, dialogue and description; otherwise they’re in danger of creating the Goldilocks Effect – not too much of one thing, and not too little, but just the right amount for an all-round good read.
Dialogue "tells" rather than shows, because it's dialogue. When you speak to someone, you are talking (telling). You don’t act out the conversation like a game of charades. That’s why dialogue can only tell – by virtue of one character telling something to another, and that’s why it’s active and dynamic.
Dialogue only accounts for a small percentage of the average book compared with larger portions of narrative and description. Take an average book and pare it down to the ratios of dialogue, narrative and description and you’ll find that dialogue doesn’t score as highly as you think, despite it being such an important element. Tighten further still to the number of speakers in the story and the total number of chapters and the result it would eye-opening.
This is why dialogue is a vital tool. It doesn't carry much emotion on its own, it never has, except through suggestion, where specific words lead the reader, for example, "I wish you were dead!". This is a leading sentence. There's no emotion here, except that which is suggested by the word 'dead' and an exclamation mark. The same could be for, "I love you", "I lost my child" or "You lied to me..."
These words suggest emotion to the reader, but never show it. And they logically can't, because fictional dialogue doesn't have actual sound, tone or pitch like TV or movies. The emotion - the pain, the intent, the humour - comes from the beats and kinesics we insert between dialogue - the part that forms the 'showing' part of it, e.g.:
The awful sensation clawed at her chest. Her voice pitched and her eyes shuttered. "I wish you were dead!"
Now the emotion is there, because the snippets of narrative lend support to the dialogue.
Supposedly, 93% of conversation is non-verbal (Albert Mehrabian, 1971). It's one good reason why we need to show it, with the help of narrative. So, to answer the question of whether narrative or dialogue is more dynamic, the answer is, of course, dialogue.
But it cannot truly be considered dynamic without the benefit of narrative.
Next week: What comes first - plot or characters?