Dialogue is when the characters speak.
Action is when the characters do things.
Narrative is when it’s neither dialogue nor action–maybe it’s description, maybe it’s backstory, or maybe it’s just a long passage of the narrator’s thoughts. It’s those parts you start to skim.
All three are critical to the story and all three can easily become too much. The key is to balance them.
When you have a lot of dialogue or a lot action, the pace of the story is quick.
“Don’t turn around.”
“But I have to.”
“You’re not going to like what you see.”
“What’s that supposed to mean–”
“Please, I’m begging of you.”
“I need to know. If I don’t know, I’ll be forever wondering.”
There’s nothing to slow this down. No tags (i.e. she said, he said), no action, no narrative. Sometimes, this is what you want. Oftentimes, it’s not. Same goes for this:
He grabbed the ledge and strained to lift himself. Up he went, up, until he’d reached the top. He flicked his eyes around and saw no enemies in sight. Then he ran. He kicked up his knees and fled, not watching for rocks, not watching for roots. He just ran.
Okay, there’s no narrative and obviously no dialogue. In high-action scenes this can work, but sometimes we want to slow things down in these sections. We want to up the tension by including narrative or dialogue.
Ex. 1 redo
“Don’t turn around,” she said, gripping his arm.
He sighed. “But I have to.”
“You’re not going to like what you see.” Her fingers dug into his skin. If he turned, she would lose him.
“What’s that supposed to mean–” he started.
“Please, I’m begging of you.”
His eyes widened. He could see she was desperate, but it didn’t matter. “I need to know,” he said in a soothing tone as he unwrapped her fingers from his arm. He glanced at the red marks left behind and then turned his gaze to her. “If I don’t know, I’ll be forever wondering.”
Action = red
Narrative = blue
I’m not saying that the redo is better, but you might have a better feel for the tension.
Ex. 2 redo
He grabbed the ledge and strained to lift himself. He didn’t care if he fell; his life was forfeit without her. Up he went, up, until he’d reached the top. He flicked his eyes around and saw no enemies in sight. That absence nudged at his brain, telling him something wasn’t right, but he didn’t listen. He couldn’t listen.
“Go,” he whispered to himself, and then he ran. He kicked up his knees and fled, not watching for rocks, not watching for roots. He just ran.
Narrative = blue
Dialogue = green
Again, not necessarily better, but different.
Deciding on when to add narrative/action to dialogue or narrative/dialogue to action depends on the pace of your scene. Here’s where reading out loud is your best friend. Since you wrote it, you might not be able to tell that the scene moves too quickly/slowly. When you read out loud, you get a much clearer sense of how things sound and how things will be read in the mind of your reader. Trust me. Read out loud.
Now, what about long scenes of just narrative? I’ll give you a clue: Moby Dick.**
Though this fish, whose loud sonorous breathing, or rather blowing, has furnished a proverb to landsmen, is so well known a denizen of the deep, yet is he not popularly classed among whales. But possessing all the grand distinctive features of the leviathan, most naturalists have recognised him for one. He is of moderate octavo size, varying from fifteen to twenty-five feet in length, and of corresponding dimensions round the waist…
Would you read this? Me neither. Talk about slow pacing–this brings the story to a stop. I would skim it, you would skim it, and that’s sad because Melville put in the time to write it.
Don’t do this.
Look at your pages. Do you see long paragraphs? That’s okay up to a point. If you can’t figure out what that point is, then let a friend read it. He/she will tell you what parts they skimmed or where they wanted more action/dialogue.
Sometimes you need narrative and you can’t avoid the pages of it. Just make sure that what you’re saying is necessary to advance the plot or fun to read–I know easier said than done. And for some people (e.g. Susanna Clarke, JRR Tolkien), long pages of non-plot storytelling are okay–great, even. But, for most of us plebeians, we need to keep those paragraphs interesting.
In other words, my manuscript has a lot of narrative that needs trimming.
What I’m Listening To: Drive Away (End Title) by Thomas Newman
from the Lemony Snicket’s soundtrack
**This was pointed out in Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Great book.