Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
There are multiple ways of presenting the story in written fiction; consider them the storytelling modes. We use these modes, these methods, to put the unfolding story on the page.
Each mode has a particular focus, a different purpose, but they work together to help us produce full and complete stories that show specific events and moments in characters’ lives while also giving readers insight into the characters’ pasts. They allow readers to listen in on conversations between characters, and they show them the story world—the physical locale and the customs, the social milieu and the mood of a town or a business setting or a home—allowing readers to feel as if they’re walking in that world and among the people there.
Writers use these ways of expressing story to not only tell story, but to highlight certain aspects of stories. These modes of expression can be balanced in a variety of ways to create different effects. But they can also be unbalanced, creating problems in each of the areas by over- or underemphasizing one of them which in turn over- or underemphasizes all of them.
Some information about each and what they do, the effects they create, should help you keep each storytelling mode in the proper balance for what you need to create in your stories.
Although there are generalities, there is no one perfect way to balance these elements that will work for every story. As each story is different, with a different feel, so will the balance of these modes be different from story to story.
There is some disagreement regarding which methods for getting story on the page are actually counted among the storytelling modes, but let’s look at the basic handful.
I would also add thought/interior monologue and flashback to the list. Others might include action, separating it from the more general narrative. Still others might include transition, emotion, or scene as modes.
While a couple of these are the same as the elements of fiction (dialogue, description, action, exposition), when discussed as fiction-writing modes, we’re talking about them as methods used for presenting plot and characters and the story world.
At the most basic level, we could separate the modes into just two—narrative and dialogue. In that case, everything that’s not spoken is narrative. This way of looking at storytelling modes is useful when you want to compare the balance of talk and non-talk.
Some stories and even some genres will have more dialogue than other stories or genres. Examine the balance in your story to see how it stacks up.
Literary novels often have a lot less dialogue and a lot more character thought and introspection. Ask yourself if the characters, especially your protagonist, in your literary novel talk too much.
Characters in young adult (YA) fiction may chatter on and on, or they might be introspective, what their parents might call moody. Or perhaps most characters talk and talk while the protagonist says less. Knowing what mood and feel you want to create will help you know if your balance of dialogue with narrative will work.
In today’s romances, the need for snappy, witty, sexy dialogue between hero and heroine means that they talk a lot. Have you given your characters scenes in which they can be humorous or sexy, where they can cause problems for their relationship by what they say, where the talk can be sensuous and purposely arousing?
Look at the balance between dialogue and everything else. See if you’ve got scenes and chapters back to back with little or no talking. Had that been your intention? Does keeping dialogue to a minimum accomplish what you need it to do or should you add more exchanges between characters?
Do you have scene after scene where characters don’t shut up, chapters where readers don’t get a break from hearing a character’s voice without relief? If so, consider cutting out some of the dialogue or adding in narrative for balance.
When I’m talking balance, don’t think you need to include an even amount of narrative and dialogue (or any of the other modes). Think of balance as a way of making the elements work well together. That may mean more dialogue in one story and less in another. Make sure that the story is balanced in a way that works and accomplishes what you need it to accomplish.
When you want to consider more than just dialogue and everything that’s not dialogue, then you want to look at the other ways of presenting story. For the most part, this involves separating some of the modes from the more general narrative mode.
Exposition is a telling mode, much like the giving of a report. Exposition is used early in a story to provide background. Think of an omniscient narrator providing details about the story world.
Cypress Falls after the war was no longer a tourist destination. The cypresses had been cut down, used for fuel, and the river dammed up five miles north of the falls. The pool at the base of the falls had gone stagnant, had grown nasty, and had finally dried into a dull depression in the earth.
Exposition is used at other times in a story as well and can be presented by characters, not only an omniscient narrator. Thus this same paragraph could be the thought or speech of a viewpoint character standing at the foot of the dead falls.
Use exposition to share information and facts. Use it to fill in gaps. Use it slow or stop the forward motion of a scene.
Use it sparingly because it does actually stop that forward motion. And use only a little at a time. Readers come to story for the events involving the characters, not a recitation of facts that sounds like a bad Wikipedia article.
The definition of description in fiction is pretty obvious: description is a representation, in words, of places, things (not only physical objects), and people in stories. Description includes details of all kinds: color, size, shape, scent, use or purpose, condition, material (what a thing is made of), and so forth. For people it can include a character’s behavior or attitude. The senses are important for description, and anything that can be appreciated by one of the senses can be described through description.
Description helps readers see and hear and feel the story world and the objects and people inside it. But writers don’t have to include a description of every object in a setting for readers to get a sense of what it looks like or how it smells. Description can be limited to a few key items, and readers will still be able to see your fictional world.
You may need to include more description if you’re building a world unfamiliar to readers, less if you put your story in a recognizable location familiar to most readers. There is no one best amount of description that fits all stories.
Description can be given straight out, easily identifiable as a paragraph of description, or it can be presented through dialogue or couched in a character’s thoughts.
The road to Pumpville was an empty one, two lanes bereft of cars and trucks, two dull white lines marking the edges before they fell off into dense shrubbery, and a long gray stretch of asphalt leading to the fifth town beyond Nowhere.
“The top was blue blue, like the sky on a cold winter morning. And the contraption whirred when I pushed the lever.”
She poked at the wound but recoiled immediately. The stench was foul, reminding Katy of dragon breath, the puss a particularly repulsive shade of green.
Description can easily be folded into dialogue, thoughts, and actions, so it doesn’t need to stand out on its own, as straight description, although a paragraph of description is not unheard of. Still, it’s likely you won’t want to go on and on with uninterrupted description unless you’re including it in that manner for the effect or to match genre requirements or at the beginning of a scene where there’s been a major shift in setting.
Consider reducing the use of description when characters would be too busy or otherwise unable to appreciate and then describe what they see, hear, taste, smell, or feel. This includes moments when characters are involved in highly dramatic situations, especially as a story starts to pick up pace near the climax.
On the other hand, there may be times in dramatic situations when one of a character’s senses is highly attuned and she’s able to focus intently and provide a description. That’s something to keep in mind as you write—what would the particular character notice at such a time?
At other times you might need to ask what would no one notice and then cut unnecessary description.
We use narrative summary to move characters quickly from scene to scene, from place to place or time to time. We can also put summary into the mouths of characters as a way of reporting events without sharing all the details and without having to show those events in a scene, although the purpose and effects aren’t quite the same as in narrative summary. All summary, however, is a shortcut, a way to skip unnecessary details in order to move the story forward.
In transitions we use narrative summary at the top of a scene as a way to orient readers to a new place or time, or to show them how much story time has passed since the end of the events in the previous scene. But you can also introduce summary midscene to skip forward in a scene.
So if your viewpoint character is at a party, for example, you could use summary to advance time from one moment to the party’s end, three hours later.
Summary condenses time and tells rather than shows. It’s also the quickest way to tell readers about a series of events.
Narrative summary can achieve its purposes with a single line of text, but you may need to include more. A paragraph or two of summary isn’t unusual, although too much summary can read as unnecessary explanation and can serve to keep readers away from the unfolding action. Some genres (literary novels, epics, and historicals) can handle longer stretches of summary. Some genres (political thrillers and suspense novels) typically require only short bursts of summary.
A few examples of summary you might find as transitions at the beginning of a chapter—
Three hours later, Rathburn was stumbling through her kitchen, searching for the paring knife she’d used that morning. She hoped it was as good for digging out a bullet as it had been for slicing potatoes.
The week away from Darla had been productive. Paul had cleaned out the garage, detailed both cars, and painted the home office. Now he waited at the front door, flowers in one hand, apology on his lips. Her flight had landed fifty minutes earlier, which meant she would pull in at any moment.
Bill tried not to count the steps from parking garage to stairs, from stairs to his apartment door, just as he’d tried not to count every hour of the two miserable months he’d hidden out in Bangkok.
These transitions each achieve multiple purposes.
~ They indicate how much time has passed since the previous scene or since the viewpoint character was last onstage (which may not be the same).
~ They show who the viewpoint character is and where he or she is.
~ They tell, in varying degrees, what the viewpoint character did in the intervening time.
~ And they each move seamlessly from details of what happened during the skipped time straight into current events.
Narrative summary could go on longer than these examples, could provide more information, but it doesn’t have to.
Summary in dialogue also moves the story forward and skips dramatizing the events it reports. It’s telling out of the mouths of characters.
A couple examples of summary in dialogue—
Milton lowered his glass to the bar and angled his head toward John.
“I lost the bet, lost our boat, then lost the company. I’m sorry, man. I thought I had the guy, but he’s a better cheater than I am.”
“Leann, I didn’t know you were home. How was Europe?”
“Cold, crowded, and costly. And two of the museums were closed for renovation. I got nothing done.”
Summary is necessary for long fiction, but you wouldn’t want to write whole chapters as narrative summary and include them one after another. (Exceptions for experimental fiction.)
Character Thought/Interior Monologue
Characters spend time thinking and they also talk to themselves. Both thought and interior monologue can be considered modes of storytelling because they’re used to tell part of the story. Since they don’t readily fit into one of the other categories, I consider them a mode of their own.
As with any writing element, character thought may be accepted more in some genres than in others or used by some points of view more often than by others. Stories with first-person points of view often share many more character thoughts than do other stories. Chick lit was a genre that relied heavily on character thought and monologue.
Too much character thought can have readers feeling claustrophobic or as if they can’t escape the talkative passenger next to them on an airplane.
Too little character thought, however, can make characters seem cool and distant. That’s okay when cool and distant is the intent, but not so good when you need to reveal the inner workings of your characters to the reader.
When exposition, narrative summary, description, thought, and dialogue are separated out from narrative, what’s left is action and event. And yet narrative is more than just action, which is why some people consider action as one of the fiction-writing modes on its own.
Still, narrative deals with what happens in story. It’s the characters moving through the story world, chasing down the bad guys or searching for the treasure or trying to get a date. It’s the stuff of plot and characters. And yet narrative can include description details and a character’s thoughts.
Unlike dialogue, narrative isn’t easily identifiable because so many other elements move in and out of it, making it what it is.
For example, description isn’t always presented in discrete paragraphs separate from action. The description of a person or object is often joined to action, enfolded into events, so that they become a unit. This becomes part of the narrative. Yes, we could pull out the words used as description and see what’s left, but narrative at its broadest includes description as well as action, all the elements that combine to show what’s happening.
While dialogue can be easily separated from other storytelling elements, it nevertheless is ultimately part of the narrative. When we write that a character said something, that’s part of the events of our story. Still, we need to have a way to talk about everything that’s not dialogue and not thought, not summary or exposition. We use narrative as the word for storytelling in its broadest sense and also as a means of separating out, excluding, the other elements and modes.
Narrative is what you find in scenes as you depict what’s happening. It’s the combined telling and showing of events connected into story. Narrative is the story.
An example of narrative that’s doesn’t include dialogue or summary but does include action and description—
He eased around the shed’s north corner, silent and smooth. The sounds from inside the shed were raucous, the three men holed up in there unaware they’d been followed.
Dade stopped at the flimsy rear door, his bruised hands ready to move. He hoped the men were as drunk as they sounded. He carried only his hands and brains as weapons. One of them now carried his knives.
Narrative is the major focus, the bulk, of most stories. That is, you’ll include many more paragraphs like these featuring Dade than you will lines of narrative summary or exposition, more even than paragraphs of dialogue or thought or description. (Again, exceptions for experimental works.) Yet the way you balance these storytelling modes will be different from the way another writer does it. Different in one book from the way you do it in another book.
I separate out flashback as a mode of its own, though it could easily fit under narrative.
Flashbacks deserve special attention from fiction writers because of the way they interrupt the current story line, turning the reader’s attention to the past and away from the story’s present. It’s a storytelling mode that shouldn’t used too soon in a story or too often.
It’s a deliberate break from the ongoing current story, the story the reader is caught up with. You don’t want to keep interrupting the main story to point out what happened before the current story moment. Just as you wouldn’t like continuous interruptions when you watch a movie, readers don’t want interruptions to their stories.
Flashbacks need to be started and ended in ways that make sense for the reader so they don’t get lost leaving or re-entering the story’s present. They need to know when they’re moving to the past and when they’re returning to the current time line.
There should also be logical reasons for moving to a flashback and not only because the writer needs to share something from the past. The viewpoint character should be prompted to think about some event from the past. Remember to give characters a reason to drift back in time—a call from an old girlfriend, a news event that brings up a similar event from a time long ago, an object found behind a dresser that has a character remembering the last time she saw it.
What’s important for the writer in regard to storytelling modes is to know that there are a variety of them that you can and should use, and to learn how to use them for the effects you need. Important too is learning how they interact with one another so you can purposely use them together or keep them apart to create even more effects.
Balance—playing with balance—is a key to using them effectively.
Is your storytelling balanced in ways that create exactly the experience you want your readers to enjoy?