Dialogue or narrative – that is the dilemma

24 Jan
Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.

–           Henry James

My publisher wants me to make my prequel mystery novel a bit shorter. Part of the problem is my two main characters, fraternal twins Dana and Bast, get too chatty in some places, especially when they are bringing each other up to speed on their separate investigations.

When do you use dialogue and when do you use short narrative to summarize what characters tell each other so that your novel or short story flows and doesn’t bore your reader? You want to make your reader care about your characters, not have your characters put your reader to sleep. Here are a few (but not only or all) guidelines to consider:

  1. Do you need to show anything with their actual dialogue and any accompanying actions? For example, if one character is giving the other some bad news and their reaction includes what they say and how they say it, you might want to go the dialogue route.
  2. Don’t drag out the dialogue exchange between characters. It can turn into the equivalent of repeatedly driving your point home to your reader. For example, I have Bast and Dana often repeating the same setup ad nauseum when they are comparing notes – each are reacting the same way and sometimes their dialogue covers what is told elsewhere in the novel. Summarizing that Dana brought Bast up to speed on whatever situation would suffice.
  3. A caveat to the above two points: there is a fine line from using dialogue to bring out the character’s reactions to something when necessary and when the dialogue shows as repetition. Ask yourself: is the dialogue best to show foreshadowing and move the plot along? You might be better to use dialogue then. Also dialogue and/or action might work better if the character is changing – perhaps trying to be stronger than wimpy or holding in his or her anger.
  4. With mystery fiction where the police detective or private investigator is interviewing a number of “persons of interest,” summarize in narrative the ones who have little or no information to contribute and use dialogue where something of importance to your plot shows up in the interrogation.
  5. Be careful you don’t overdo the narrative just to contain your dialogue. You don’t want to overdo the telling and bore your reader this way. However, with narrative you can include the character’s inner thoughts and actions.
  6. Sometimes you can combine narrative with summary. Here’s how I did it in the short story Digging Up the Dirt, with the fraternal twins. Instead of Dana repeating to Bast her “interrogation” by the constable and what led up to it, I wrote:

And you actually let that constable order you around,” my fraternal twin, Bast, said later.

“Well, I had to listen to Fielding’s interrogation, especially of Aunt Doris.” I smiled.

(copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, published by Blue Denim Press, 2012)

If you want to show how characters relate to each other under various circumstances and bring out their distinctive traits, dialogue with action might work best. If it gets too long, you can intersperse it with narrative. I do this in another story in Beyond the Tripping Point. Below is the link of my reading the opening scene in “Body in the Trunk,” clipped from my interview with Hugh Reilly on Liquid Lunch from thatchannel. The reading and the short preview before is three minutes long.

Sharon A. Crawford  Reading from Beyond the Tripping Point on Liquid Lunch

Now I need to get back to my own novel and follow my advice.


Sharon A. Crawford


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