How To Recognise and Avoid Heavy Narration

Every story requires narration – it’s the glue that binds the dialogue and the description to the framework of your story, but if not done correctly, it can cause problems for writers.

The narration in a novel is most often either first person or third person. It’s the informative stuff that the reader needs to help them follow the story – background information, facts, non-active description and character revelation. Narration is the ‘telling’ part of writing, not the showing. It fills the gaps between description, active scenes, and dialogue. It’s an essential part of storytelling, but as with so many things when it comes to writing, it’s easy to provide too much of it.

When used correctly, narrative can help to control pace – it can slow the story when necessary. This allows the reader to take a breather from the action while they process prior information or events. It also gives the writer time to establish background details, give more information, move the story to the next scene and so on.

A good story should have a balance of narration, dialogue and description. If there is more dialogue than narrative or description, then it’s dialogue heavy, which can overshadow the other working elements. The same is true if there is too much narrative or too much description. The idea is to maintain all three elements in equal measure to give the reader a rounded, good story. One should not dominate the other. So, too much narration can cause problems with the flow of the story. It can slow the pace in places where it shouldn’t need to slow down, and it can inadvertently suppress active scenes. When we’re in the flow of writing, we don’t always pay attention to how much or what we’re writing, so how do you recognise too much narration?

The easiest way to spot narrative problems is to read back through your story. You’ll soon notice if there’s too much tedious narration that doesn’t tell the reader anything useful, or whether there are too many pages of overly long narration (info dumping), without much else happening.

It is possible, however, to spot problems during writing. Try to take notice of what you write. If you think there doesn’t seem to be enough dialogue or description, yet the narrative plods on for page after page without anything particularly happening, then this is a strong indication that there is too much tedious narrative. This happens when a writer describes mundane things in detail, for example, a character leaving the house to drive into town – they will describe the character picking up their keys, checking the house, stepping out, closing the door, walking to the car, getting into the car, starting the car and pulling away etc. In truth, all that’s really needed is a concise sentence: 

He grabbed his keys, left the house and drove into town.

If you see heavy narrative passages or long blocks of narration, simply pare it back, because most of it will be surplus to requirements. Instead, allow some more dialogue and description into your scenes to balance things.

Another thing you should learn to recognise is an info dump. Info dumping is when a writer floods page after page with background information – usually of past events, near the beginning of the story or even the first chapter – in the belief that the reader won’t understand the story without it, and that it also enhances the plot. The reality is that it doesn’t enhance the plot and readers don’t need huge chucks of information thrown at them to make them understand what’s happening.

Instead, use indirect exposition. This is a way of drip-feeding vital information to the reader when it’s necessary; a little morsel at a time. That way, it’s possible to keep the narrative brief and to the point so that it doesn’t clog the flow of the story and doesn’t send your reader to sleep.

The art of good narration is to balance it with your description and dialogue and remember to keep it fairly brief. Don’t info dump at the beginning (or anywhere else in the novel) and don’t make narrative passages overly long by describing everything that’s happening in a scene.

Impart the reader only with information that is necessary to move the story forward. Keep it brief, keep it concise and keep it pertinent, and always keep an eye out when you read back through your work. That way, you’ll learn to spot when you’re writing too much narration.

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