When discussing the “nuts and bolts” of the craft of writing, questions often arise about “balancing” dialogue, action, description and narrative. For me, however, it’s not really about balance. It’s more about “flow” and effect.
We live in a visual era. Most of us grew up watching television. We frequent movie theaters and own entire collections of DVDs. Our favorite books get spun into our favorite movies. Novels, like movies, are built scene by scene, so I frame each scene the way I might frame a shot in a movie. I give it context in the form of setting: broadly (site, season, day or night…) and also with significant detail (close up, i.e. room, furnishings, temperature, time…).
Every scene should consist primarily of dialogue and action. Descriptive detail is added as needed, as much as necessary to give the reader the pictures I want them to have, to create the effect I want. So, frame the immediate scene then bring in or show the actors, describing each as briefly as possible. The more central a character is to the story, the more details the reader will need about the character. (Note: Descriptions and details about some important characters, such as bad actors, or villains, are sometimes purposefully withheld as a design element of the novel. This requires deft handling to create suspense––again, creating effect––without making the reader feel cheated.)
Once some elements of description are established, they won’t need to be mentioned in detail again. In other words, once your readers have a good visual description of your characters, they won’t need complete descriptions again. Occasional reinforcement of certain details may be needed, but long descriptions can be saved for scene and costume changes.
In real life, not every scene or costume change is significant, but they can be, and in a novel, they should be. When a guy who routinely wears jeans and T-shirts starts showing up to everyday events in slacks and sport shirts, that could be newsworthy. Likewise, a woman who does something unexpectedly different with her hair should rate notice, and when a family who has gone to the same church every Sunday for years suddenly switches to another church that means something.
A great tool for the novelist is Point of View. It’s much easier to write from a specific POV than to film from a specific POV. Narrative is the big bonus here. Narrative is what books have that movies do not and really cannot. Even when movies make use of a narrator, they simply do not communicate the unspoken thoughts of the characters with the same internal intensity as the written word. Narration plays a part in description; in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two. It is also useful in transition, that necessary linkage between one scene and the next. Where I find narrative most useful, however, is in character introspection, which is so necessary in growing character arcs and establishing character goals and internal conflicts. That said, narration must be used sparingly and carefully. Otherwise, action is interrupted and the author becomes the focus rather than the character(s).
Now, back to “flow.” Build your scenes with dialogue and action. Frame them with setting. Sketch pictures for your readers with description. Open the minds of your characters through narrative. Be sure you transition from one scene to the next. (Hint: Transition begins in one scene and culminates in the following scene.) When you have all these elements together, be sure you craft each paragraph by varying the structure and length of sentences. Write for effect. Write for flow. One of the best ways to judge “flow,” is to read aloud what you have written. When you do, pay particular attention to punctuation.
Think of punctuation as traffic directors. A period represents a stop sign. A comma means pause or slow down. A semi-colon is a yield sign. A colon corresponds to a stoplight: a line of traffic is oncoming. An exclamation point is a honking horn! Dashes are set asides––pertinent but separate––like the buses that are allowed to break into a moving line of traffic. “Quotation marks,” my high school English teacher said, “can be called the ‘yellow cones of punctuation’ because they direct us to those words that are actually spoken.” What does a question mark do? Why, it forces us to shift gears.
Grammar is a significant tool for the author in achieving “flow.” In fiction, it is entirely permissible to break the rules of grammar in order to create effect, provided the writer knows exactly which rule(s) he or she is breaking.
Writing that flows effortlessly when read aloud, flows effortlessly when read silently; such writing pulls the reader into the story and holds him or her to the end. When the writing flows, the effect desired by the author is created for the reader and issues of “balance” are nonexistent, regardless of the mixture of dialogue, action, description and narrative.
What elements of achieving “flow and effect” do you find most challenging?
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ABOUT ARLENE: Deborah Rather writes as ARLENE JAMES and is the author of more than 75 novels. Publishing steadily for three decades, she has concentrated on Inspirational Romance for several years. She loves providing her readers with uplifting stories of true love as God has ordained it. She and her husband, artist James E. Rather, have traveled extensively and live in northwest Arkansas, near the two brightest granddaughters in the world.
“Carbon Copy Cowboy” is Book #3 in the new 6-book Harlequin Love Inspired "Texas Twins" series. (Followed by Seeker Glynna Kaye’s book #4, “Look Alike Lawman!”)
Amnesiac Bride. An injured woman in a wedding veil on Jack Colby’s ranch property? Jack has no idea who she is—and neither does she. “Kendra” doesn’t know her name, what the veil is all about or where she belongs. And since Jack’s entire life changed with the unwelcome discovery of a twin brother, he’s not in the mood for secrets or surprises. Like finding out that Kendra might be spoken for. Yet even as she helps him open his heart to his family, he finds himself praying for the opportunity to make new memories.
“Texas Twins.” Two sets of twins, torn apart by family secrets find their way home.