Dialog vs. Narration

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”

One of the most common suggestions I get from my critique groups is to switch from narration to dialog or (rarely) vice versa. By letting characters speak, dialog injects emotion, personality, and movement, particularly if the words are in the character’s voice and fall trippingly on the tongue, as Hamlet instructed his players. But direct speech requires more space (and two or more people, unless one is writing internal monologue). Narrative stops the story while the author tells the reader stuff; however, narrative is efficient: a short paragraph of narrative can often get across information that would need several pages of conversation.

At least in most writing, dialog is the “Let’s do this ..” part of the story, and narrative is the “and here’s how it happened and why” part.

Not giving details speeds up the story and creates tension. Unfortunately, one of the thesaurus synonyms for tension is confusion anxiousness, and agitation.  Narrative is the train standing in the station, loading passengers. Dialog is the train moving out of the station toward its destination.

Those of you who have been with me for a while have surely noticed that I have written fewer posts in the recent past. Given pandemic restrictions for nearly two years, there should be more posts, right? I guess, without really analyzing it, I was following form. Pilgrimage was, after all, established to trace my learning cycle as a writer. Insights, at least large ones, have become fewer as I’ve progressed. So posts have become fewer. Sooo … I’m planning to broaden my focus a bit, and post a bit more often. If you have writing topics you’d like to discuss, shoot them to me.

And, as always, thanks for listening.

Rampell’s Rules 5 and 6

Last time, I borrowed a column from the Washington Post opinion writer, Catherine Rampell. It was a marvelous, fun, insightful commentary on grammar and writing. In that post, I covered the first four of her six rules. They’re on-point advice on mechanics and process. I said I’d comment on the last two rules in the next post. Then, I wrote, rewrote, trashed, wrote again, and finally came to this:

Rampell’s Rule 5 is: You must be willing to write, say and even be things that are unpopular.

  “Writing well,” she says, “takes moral courage.” Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion page writer, digs deeply into this idea in a piece called “The Encroachment of the Unsayable” (10/19/20). “Our compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their words in fear. (…) The result is safer, but also more timid; more correct, but also less interesting. It is simultaneously bad for those who write, and boring for those who read.” Both Rampell and Stephens are commenting on reportage, not fiction. But Stephens’ “boring to those who read” is a knife in the heart of a novelist.

When do a few trenchant words become the rhetorical slap on the sunburned shoulder of a reader’s sensibilities? And when does that matter? What do I do about the fact that I am being told, usually politely, to worry about things that may offend readers? (And why the hell would they be reading a novel if they didn’t agree to risk being offended?)

My first draft of this post was a long response studded with examples of comments made on my writing. It sounded a lot like whining, so I cut it. Currently, I’m using the operating rule that if the criticism requires an assumption about the person writing (as in me, an old, semi-priveleged white male), I ignore it.

So we can pass on to Rampell’s rule 6, which appears like the hope that was last to escape Pandora’s box:

Rule 6: Be kind, even when you don’t need to be.

We could all do well to follow that, couldn’t we?