Novel Writing: Compelling Narrative and Dialogue

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In this chapter, we will learn about writing compelling narrative and dialogue. Narrative and dialogue are the wood and bricks with which your story is built. You cannot write a strong novel with weak narrative and artificial dialogue anymore than you can build a strong house with crumbling bricks and rotten wood. So let’s look at some key principles.

Basics of Narrative and Dialogue

There are a few things that will strengthen both your narrative and your dialogue.

1. Replace adverbs with descriptive verbs. Barbara could run quickly, but it would be better if she raced or sped. Tommy can speak softly, but the reader will get a better feeling if Tommy whispers.

Exercise: Replace the following adverbs with action verbs

1. Talked loudly
2. Stood nervously
3. Talked quickly
4. Looked happy

A thesaurus is a book of synonyms and is a good place to go to find more precise and compelling words for what you want to say. In Microsoft Works or Word, put your cursor over the word you want to find a synonym for and press shift + f7 to open the thesaurus for that word.

2. Let your reader feel his or her own feelings. Your writing should elicit the feeling you want in your reader without you having to tell the reader how to feel. This is especially true of humor. In the words of the late Gary Provost, “If your reader thinks something is funny, he or she will laugh. If he doesn‘t think it‘s funny, you‘re not doing yourself a favor by telling him it‘s supposed to be.” on the other hand, you can have a character think something is funny. That reveals the character to the reader.

Show Don’t Tell

If you’ve ever taken a course or tutorial about fiction writing before, you’ve probably run across this phrase before, but what does it mean? In a nutshell, showing means simply adding details.

I woks up with a bad headache and went down to breakfast.

When I slipped from dreaming to wakefulness, it took a moment to realize that the pounding was not a talking drum in Africa but my own aching head. Usually, I deal with headaches by going to sleep, but since I’d just awakened, I knew sleeping wouldn’t help. I needed to get up. I dragged myself out of bed and went through the motions of making it across the floor. At the top of the stairs, I stopped, but the stairs kept moving. Groping for the banister, I eased my foot down to the first step. I was grateful for the plush carpet that cushioned my step, but I dreaded the hard tiles that awaited me in the kitchen. Taking one step at a time, I made it to the first floor where my stomach decided to join in the fun of making me miserable.

As you can see, showing takes a lot more space than telling, so if you’re looking at a lot of white space wondering how you’re going to fill it up, consider adding details

Exercises: Use narrative and dialogue to express the following scenarios in detail

1. Tony waited while the mechanic fixed his car.
2. Sarah hated her boss.
3. Danny was scared of the dog.
4. Tammy called the doctor and made an appointment for Monday.


In my writing, I basically only describe scenery as it affects a character. In the example above, we know about the plush carpet because it cushioned the character’s foot step. We know about the tiles in the kitchen because the character dreads their hardness. Show your character reacting to things in his or her environment is the character doing something with an object in his/her environment? Does something the character sees, hears, smells, feels or tastes elicit certain emotions or bring back certain memories for the character? Describing scenery in terms of how it affects your character can also move your story forward.

The birds were beautiful, flying way over there. Then they changed direction and started flying towards us. All those birds flying over my freshly washed hair didn’t strike me as a Kodak moment. I went inside and watched them fly over my roof. They were beautiful, flying way over there.

Exercise: Describe what effects the following scenes can have on a character

1. A sunset
2. A forest
3. A door
4. A chandelier

Back Story

Your back-story consists of the things that happened in the character’s life before the story begins. If your story begins on your character’s fortieth birthday, there may be details that happened before that time that are important to what’s going on now. Long flashbacks tend to stop the action, so it’s better to avoid them. Instead, weave your character’s dreams and memories into the action taking place now. Toni Morison is a master of this. You can get a good idea of how it’s done by reading Beloved or The Bluest Eye.

Purpose of Dialogue

Your dialogue needs to do two things: it needs to move the story forward and it needs to reveal your character. Avoid chitchat that’s not doing any work. It’s not necessary for the character to say “Hello” unless this in some way moves the story forward or reveals your character. In other words, there has to be something about that “Hello” that has an effect on your character.


Jake sighed with relief. He was alone at last. No one would know what he was doing. In the dark silence, he could concentrate on his task without any interference from busy bodies.
“Hello,” Sonja whispered. “Is anyone here?”
“Sonja!” Jake gasped.
“Jake, is that you? Darling, how sweet of you to come.”
****. Of all people, Sonja was the last person Jake wanted to see.

This dialogue moves the story forward because now Jake can’t do what he was planning to do. It’s a game changer. It also reveals how the characters relate to each other.

Break Up Your Dialogue

Although dialogue can add life to straight narrative, unbroken dialogue is limited in its ability to let the reader know what’s going on in the story and in the character’s mind. Be especially careful of using dialogue to do narrative’s job. Such dialogue tends to sound artificial because it’s not natural for people to talk like encyclopedias.

Example of artificial dialogue:
“Hey Sam, isn‘t that the girl we saw at Mel‘s Bar on 53rd street, downtown Los Angeles last night?”
“Why, yes, Mark. So she is. Wonder what she’s doing way over here. Could it be an accident or coincidence that she should show up on 109th street at the same time we did? I sure did like it when we were dancing the tango last night.”
“Too bad her boyfriend pulled that gun on you and we had to wrestle him to the floor.”
“Too bad she has such a rotten boyfriend. I‘d take her myself, but if she‘s into guys like that, she probably won‘t like a laid back, easy going guy like me.”

This dialogue reveals the character’s feelings and provides the reader with information that’s important to the story. But, face it; people just don’t talk like that. Break your dialogue up with memories and unspoken thoughts. Let the reader know how the characters affect each other as they talk.

Sam snapped out of his reverie when Mark nudged him. He followed Mark’s gaze to the girl across the street. He gasped. It was the girl from Mel’s bar. Mel’s bar was on 53rd street. What was she doing way over here at the exact same time as they were? Coincidence? Accident? “Holy pumpkin, what‘s she doing here?”
Mark shrugged. “Tell me and we‘ll both know.”
Sam still liked what he saw. He could’ve dance with her all night, but wrestling one gun slinging boyfriend to the ground was one too many for him. Still, she looked good. “Holy pumpkin,” he sighed. “If only girls who looked like that would fall for guys like me.”
“You‘re too good for‘m.”
Sam grimaced at Mark‘s lame attempt to make him feel better. “I‘m just too laid back.”
“Lay back too far and they‘ll break your back.”
Sam laughed and that made him feel much better.

Notice this dialogue is told strictly from Sam’s point of view. We’ll talk more about the point of view character in the next chapter.

Mechanics of Dialogue

There are certain rules of punctuation that should be observed when writing dialogue.

1. The punctuation mark always goes inside the quotation mark, even if only the last word is in quotes.

Mary said, “Don‘t do that”!

Mary said, “Don‘t do that!”

2. When using a he said/she said tag, end declarative sentencess (a sentence that ends wit h a period) with a comma rather than a period.

“I am going to the store.” Jackie said.

“I am going to the store,” Jackie said.

It’s not necessary to use a tag after every quotation. This only slows the flow of your dialogue. Use tags for clarity only if there’s a possibility the reader might not know who is speaking. What a character says will often clue the reader in to who is speaking. If the reader knows Robert has a gun, then a statement like, “Put up your hands” doesn’t need to be followed by Robert said. Exception is when you want to tell the reader how Robert said, “Put up your hands.” Was he angry? Unsure of himself? Hoping they wouldn’t notice he had a fancy water pistol?

All in all, you want to balance narrative and dialogue. Too much of either on any page could mean you want to break it up.

Stay tuned for the next chapter on point of view character.
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