Narration vs Dialogue: A Clear-Cut Distinction?

1382970_talking_guysNarration versus dialogue in fiction: are they as diametrically opposed as they sometimes seem? In what ways do they overlap?

I’ve been speaking lately about how our unique styles as authors and our approaches to creative writing often boil down to where we lie upon a spectrum between two extremes, rather than simply adopting one extreme over another.

First of all, I think every writer early on discovers that they have a preference for, or are better are writing, pieces of dialogue or narrative passages. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and authors who haven’t given the matter much thought. But personally, I prefer writing dialogue.

I feel I am better at dialogue in some respects. Dialogue can be tricky, of course: especially because it has to sound natural, which means that not ONLY should the way a character says something make sense, but the simple fact that the character is speaking such and such information, at such and such a time, should make sense too.

Of course, an obvious spectrum exists between narration and dialogue if we consider what percentage of our word count consists of the former versus the latter. That breakdown could be 80/20. 60/40. 55/35. 10/90. We could place any novel on a chart and compare its makeup with other books that way.

Even that kind of spectrum, though, highlights that we often make a clear-cut distinction between narration and dialogue. We feel forced to choose between the two. Really, the two are friends, not enemies, and we should concentrate more on how to make them work together, to strengthen each other.

First of all, first person narration is very much a unique blend of dialogue and narration, seeing as every narrative paragraph written in first person is supposedly written by a character and is presented in a character’s voice.

But beyond that, there IS a fun way to combine narration with dialogue that we don’t often discuss. I only learned about this, or had my attention drawn to it, by studying Spanish grammar.

It is called “indirect discourse.”

INDIRECT DISCOURSE

We all know what dialogue is. And we all know what narration is. To put it simply, indirect discourse is when an author writes or presents dialogue as narration.

Confused? Don’t worry; it will all make sense in a second. You have definitely seen, and almost certainly written, indirect discourse before, even if you never have read that terminology.

Dictionary.com defines indirect discourse as “discourse consisting not of an exact quotation of a speaker’s words but of a version transformed from them for grammatical inclusion in a larger sentence.”

The best way to clarify that definition is through example. Here is a piece of dialogue that I’ll rewrite as indirect discourse:

“I’ll pick up the groceries after work. Just make sure to remind me. I might forget otherwise.”

Joe said he would pick up the groceries after work; just make sure to remind him, because he might  forget otherwise.

That paragraph just above is written as indirect discourse: you are told what Joe said in such a way that you could even recreate the dialogue piece by piece if you needed or wanted to. It comes in Joe’s voice but it isn’t written as dialogue. It’s included as part of a larger narrative segment, and as such, verb tenses have to change to reflect this style of presentation.

Joe might say, “I’ll pick up the groceries.” But you wouldn’t write, “Joe said he’ll pick up the groceries.” You would write “Joe said he would pick up the groceries.”

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of tense choice here and how to use verb tense properly when writing about the past, and especially when writing about two different moments in the past, one of which represents the future of the other. This is something that (luckily) we generally understand naturally in regard to our native language, and if you have doubts or it gives you trouble, don’t worry: this is precisely why proofreaders exist.

My point her is that we get very, very used to thinking of “pure narration” and “pure dialogue” as two options. And while indirect discourse is certainly one kind of narration, it’s narration that does represent or lie closer to dialogue than most other forms.

It is an option of representing what a character has said that I, at least, often overlook. We don’t have to write a character’s words as dialogue. Nor do we HAVE to summarize what a character said in a narrator’s voice, though we could do that. We can also use indirect discourse.

What makes indirect discourse so useful is that it maintains a character’s voice in presenting what he’s said, but without forcing the breaks that dialogue naturally imposes. It keeps pace steady and it can take emphasis away from something that’s not important enough to relate in full dialogue mode.

So, what do you think of all this? Do you use a lot of indirect discourse? Do you feel it is useful in any particular kind of situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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18 responses to “Narration vs Dialogue: A Clear-Cut Distinction?

  1. The grammar nazi in me cringes that the title has “dialgoue[sic]“.

    Elsewise, I’m a heavily dialogue-based writer, with most of my setting and background implied based on what characters say or sense. I’ve used a different form of indirect discourse where instead of a character thinking something specific, I narrate it. Keeps the draft from being a pile of quotation tags and italics.

  2. I’m pretty dialogue heavy too. So this would be like when I write something like: Violet and I discuss the party we’re going to.She wants to make sure we don’t have matching outfits so she tells me what she’s going to wear. Okay, she had nothing to worry about. There was no way I would wear something like that.

    I just made this up for examples sake. This will not be in my book…lol

    • Cool! That’s a great example of dialogue not written as dialogue at all but as narration through a first person narrator who even uses the first person. That’s rare!!!

  3. I am reminded of a section of a short story called “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson. It’s a brief exchange that mixes quoted dialogue with indirect dialogue. I can’t recall the exact ext, but it goes something like this:

    “This kind of thing happens a lot,” he said.
    I asked him what sort of thing he meant.
    “Seeing things that aren’t there.”
    I told him that I didn’t understand.
    “Stop shouting and listen to me for a minute.”

    It goes on longer than that, but you get the idea. By describing the narrator’s responses rather than quoting them directly, Gibson invites the reader to supply her or his own dialogue, which helps the reader get into the narrator’s head.

    I am also reminded of a line from Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”:

    She asked again if I loved her, and I said that I thought such questions were meaningless, but I probably didn’t.

    In that case indirect dialogue serves to distance the reader from the other character and invokes a profoundly chilling sense of dislocation.

  4. Not sure if I ever used indirect disclosure. At least not on purpose or knowing the term. I’ll keep any eye out for it though.

    With narration and dialogue, I’ve looked at them as information delivery systems. Narration is where you’re giving the info to the reader while dialogue is more for the characters to exchange knowledge. For example, the narrator might tell the reader what the villain is planning. Yet, you need some kind of exchange for the heroes to figure it out. I’ve read some books where character magically know what the narrator has said, which is very jarring.

  5. more than spontaneous, the dialogue makes the novel more realistics, have more thriller things, less artificiosous (the tale) adding to this a bit of theather

  6. First off, thanks for the explanation of what indirect disclosure is, I had never heard that term before.
    I’ve recently noticed in my writing where I’ve started using indirect disclosure. I never used to write like that, in fact I would go out of my way to use dialogue instead, but I’m seeing that it can improve the readability of my work.
    Suddenly I’m glad I’ve put off editing and rewriting… my laziness is now going to save me time in the long run.
    Thanks for the great posts, I always look forward to them.

    • Glad you enjoyed this one! I definitely agree, indirect disclosure can be a real aid to readability, if only because it adds variety to style and provides a way to de-emphasize important but kind of dull information

  7. If I’m in the middle of a narrative paragraph, I use indirect discourse to move the story forward. Usually, when I’m writing dialogue, I stick with dialogue until I’m finished with the scene. Sometimes, I combine a line of dialogue with narrative, just to emphasize a point. Dialogue is the “distillation of conversation.” Therefore, it’s sometimes more expedient to use indirect discourse or narration to convey facts to the reader.

    Thought-provoking post, as always, Victoria!

  8. I start by writing out full dialogue for character interactions – it ensures I know exactly what is said, by whom and for what reason. This ends up with incredibly laborious passages that I then go over with the red pen, to cut out extraneous material, and wherever there’s something said that’s not so important (to give the character’s exact words or intent) to make it indirect. Combine this with the inclusion of internal dialogue for the POV character, and it becomes a lot easier to mix ‘things that happen’ with ‘things that are thought or said’.
    This method began by accident as I never chose to use indirect disclosure and realised after reviewing my dialogue that I sorta needed it.

  9. Great post. Thanks. I always like to learn new literary terms, and it’s even more appealing when I actually understand what these terms mean.

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