Friday, September 3, 2010

Narration versus dialogue

In The Devil You Don't Know, I am convinced I relied too heavily on dialogue as opposed to narration, since actually narrating a third-person POV novel terrified me. Don't ask me why, it just did.

Not one beta reader mentioned this, nor did my book editor, but it literally jumped out at me when revising it for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, my irrational fear of actually narrating my book led to a lot of expository dialogue (which I struggled with and managed to tamp down eventually, but still ....).

For the record, I hate expository dialogue. Really, seriously hate it.

For you non-writers out there who wonder what expository dialogue is, here's an admittedly poorly written example:

"Hey John, I'm so glad you're my brother in law, although this divorce you are going through right now is sure hard on the whole family," Sam said.

"Thanks Sam. As you know, the divorce will be final in a few weeks, and Josie, your sister and my soon-to-be-ex-wife, is still crazy as a fucking loon ...."

Well, you get the idea.

So I've been trying really hard to avoid that in the new book, Empty Spaces.

I've been told I write dialogue fairly well, and I suspect that played into my overuse of it in TDYDK. Whatever. I'm trying to reach a happy medium in ES, using dialogue when necessary and narrating when that's called for.

I think it's been working. So I decided to throw out the first scene from the book, which chronicles the aftermath of a horrific school shooting and its impact on a 34-year-old history teacher (Grant) and a pretty 17-year-old student (Annie). Here's a hint -- one of them is crazy as hell. :)

This scene is from Chapter 4. Please weigh in with any thoughts, comments, etc. Remember, this is an unedited first draft, so please be nice. Okay? [Rated R for language and content]

* * * *
“Wow,” Annie said from the kitchen doorway. She’d showered and dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt after her three-hour nap. Her towel-dried hair stood up on top. She looked like a sexy little punk rocker. “Something smells good.”

“It’s not much,” Grant said, pleased at her reaction. “But it’s the best I could do, given the circumstances.” He’d found a pound of ground beef in the freezer and had thawed it in the microwave. After browning two patties in a skillet, he’d thrown together two salads using the veggies he’d snagged from the little garden. Now, he wiped his hands on his jeans and looked at her. “Do you have any bread?”

“Fuck if I know,” she said, yawning. “I don’t eat here much.”

Finding none, they dined on hamburger patties, stale Doritos and salad topped with generic French dressing. Annie found an unopened two liter of Diet Coke in the refrigerator and some ice cubes in the freezer. Grant was hungrier than he had thought possible and ate heartily, while Annie only picked at her meal.

When he finished, he pushed his plate back and looked at her. Without makeup, she looked like the kind of girl Lindsay might hire to watch the kids on their rare Friday date nights.

“Want to talk about it?”

She put her fork down and sighed. “I’ve already told you everything there is to tell. My mom is a drunk and a fucking meth addict and she left me. It’s kind of cliché, when you think about it.” She looked away. “Your generation really sucks at raising kids.”

He shrugged. “We were raised by a bunch of narcissistic Baby Boomers. What did you expect?”

“More, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know.”

He drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you want to talk about the shooting?”

“No,” she said, averting her eyes. “Not yet.”

“Okay. Now what?” Leaving the girl alone still sounded like a bad idea. And if he left her and something happened, something tragic, he wasn’t sure he could live with the additional guilt.

“I need music.” She jumped up and ran into the living room. Before he could respond, she was back with an old school boom box. She sat it on the table and punched the on button. A haunting bass line filled the kitchen.

She sat down and closed her eyes. “God, I love Pink Floyd,” she said, her head swaying to the music. “Boomers suck, but their music is the best.”

Grant nodded, still trying to place the album. “Dark Side of the Moon?”

She shook her head. “Wish You Were Here.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding.

She got up and danced slowly around the kitchen. Her hair hung into her eyes and her hips swiveled enticingly. She was barefoot and his gaze kept returning to those sexy green toenails.
He swallowed and looked away. He knew he should be leaving. Lindsay and the girls would be home in a few hours. His wife was already worried about him. There was no need to make things worse.

“Hold on,” she said, dancing out of the kitchen. She returned a few seconds later with a fat translucent red bong. She filled it at the sink and sat down, giggling at the look on his face. She reached into the pocket of her shorts and pulled out a lighter. Grant watched, transfixed, as she expertly lit the bowl and sucked until her eyes watered.

The cloying smell of marijuana filled the kitchen, immediately transporting Grant back to his college days. Annie smiled, her eyes partially closed against the smoke, and handed the bong to him.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. And neither should you, after what happened last night.”

“Oh, don’t be such a fucking chicken,” she said, pouting. “What’s the big deal about copping a little buzz? I mean, after what we’ve been through, what could it hurt?”

He hesitated. The girl had a point. What harm could there be? While getting stoned with a student violated all of Grant’s self-imposed rules of conduct, he had to admit that it sounded pretty good at the moment.

“Well, we have been under a lot of stress,” he agreed, taking the bong and the lighter.

“There’s no better stress reliever than dope,” she said, smiling coyly. “Except maybe masturbation.”

He was still laughing when he took the first hit.

* * * *


  1. Your dialogue is amazing Terry. A bit graphic for my taste, so I'd have a hard time reading much more than this, but holy crap you can write!! You do an excellent job of adding narrative info with the dialogue, so we know what the characters are doing, how they're doing it, and what kinds of mood is going on. Awesome job!

  2. I never had trouble with TDYDK, either the dialogue or narration. And personally, I happen to think too much narration is boring. I'd rather have dialogue. My latest is pretty much all dialogue as well. I think it allows the reader to get closer to the characters, inside their heads, eavesdrop on their lives. Voyeurism at its best.

    Isn't it funny what we baby boomers think about ourselves (in our writing).

    I know you said this was a first draft so I won't bore you with what I think I would tighten up unless you want me to e-mail you.

  3. Thanks Karen. I went back and flagged it for language and content. :)

    Anne: Bore me. Please. ;)

  4. AAHHH!! that sounds like BIG trouble. I thought the dialogue was good, i'm not sure a teenager would know what a baby boomer is (i'm 28 and i only vaguely have an idea of that) i thought there was a bit of drag about the food... just a bit, like cut a couple adjectives (unopened soda, picked from the garden... not much) for a first draft, i thought it was really amazing! (even if the guy is a peedo!) nice to read some of your writing terry! very good job! and the dialogue/ narration balance feels good to me! :)

  5. A good mix of both in this. I'm a gritty, crass critter, and I didn't find the language offensive at all. It felt rather realistic. I'm mom to 5 kids; 26, 24, 21, 19, and 12. You'd be amazed at what differing info they all know, depending on how politically or academically motivated they are.

    I've had amazingly adult conversations with 17 yo's, while some 30 yo's can't carry a thought past dick and jane. You're not writing this for YA - are you? - so I wouldn't worry about the terminology.

    'Course, I'm old enough to be Anne and asxpiring_x's mom - but . .

    I'm not a fan of info dump in dialogue though. I prefer narrative for backstory and setting details, but I'm partial to dialogue otherwise. The example you used above would irritate me if seen in a novel, and I don't want a blow-by-blow narrator for action scenes, but you seem a skilled enough writer to know when you're crossing a line, and what is working.

    And you've got some resources to help with your writing short-falls. Don't be too hard on yourself.

    You've hooked me Terry, in this short excerpt. You said it was "an unedited first draft" but it looks fairly clean to me.

    A good start.


  6. I've got no problem with the mix of narrative and dialogue here. If you check out a lot of popular writers, dialogue carries the book, so I wouldn't worry too much about overusing dialogue as long as it isn't an info dump.

    This works fine, IMO. Needs polishing and editing but it's a very nice excerpt.

  7. This is terrific! I think the mix of narrative and dialogue works well. You might even be able to take out some of the inner dialogue-- when Grant is justifying his pot smoking at the end, for example. The dialogue (or just the inner dialogue) works well alone. Really well.

    Thanks for sharing!