Dialogue-Strong vs. Narrative-Strong

As far as art forms go, creative writing is a bit of an interesting one. Just like painting or sculpting it can take a while to become skilled at it, but not everyone seems to expect that. I can’t say I have looked into any psychological studies about it, but what I am always reminded of is one school trip I made to a arts/theater festival in high school. While at dinner that night, I was complaining to a friend that I didn’t seem to be as good at acting as some of the other classmates we had come with, and at 15, I had determined that obviously I wasn’t “naturally” as talented as they were. A teacher nearby asked how long I had been practicing–not just my scene, but acting in general stating, “You wouldn’t expect to pick up a brush for the first time and be a brilliant painter, would you? Why would you expect to be a brilliant actor?”

It didn’t fully make sense to me at the time (what was acting, really? Standing in front of people and talking! I talked in front of people all the time!) but it always stuck with me. And it’s true. Art forms, even ones that seem easy in their simplest form (talking to people, writing words down) still require a certain skill set to progress from novice to professional.

As I hinted to above, writing is very similar. With most people learning to write in some way or another by first grade, putting words on paper isn’t difficult. We are taught how to form letters, go through spelling tests, and are forced to write hundreds of school papers by the time we graduate high school or college. Therefore, many people think of writing creatively as just another part of that progression. They could write good papers in high school so this is just doing that but while also telling an awesome story. At its heart, the skills that seem necessary to write a novel don’t seem very hard at all.

Of course, if writing (or writing well) were as simple as that, I wouldn’t have this blog. There really wouldn’t be much to discuss. You’d think of a story idea, write it down in your native language, and move on with your life. After over a decade of writing, and editing, and learning it as a craft, however, I’ve realized it isn’t quite that simple. Different people have different levels of natural talent when it comes to any art form. There might be someone who has never held a pen before who can draw or write at professional levels straight off the bat. There are Mozarts of every generation. If that doesn’t happen to be you, however, that doesn’t mean that you will never write or draw (or act) at the same level as them. It just means that you need to practice. Because for all the ways you could learn to go from being an okay writer to a great writer, the best is to read and write as much as possible.

The other part to going from okay to great is to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.

If you don’t happen to be a literary Mozart who comes to the table with all your writing skills sharply developed (I know I wasn’t) I find that writers tend to start out as either dialogue-strong or narrative-strong. It’s generally pretty simple to pick this out looking over your writing based on what you end up writing the most of in your first novel, but as a general outline:

Dialogue-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “discussion” scenes to “movement/action” scenes
  • Have long stretches of conversation, often either without tags or with very short tags (he said, he nodded, he asked, etc.)
  • Introduce characters with very little or no description but have well-developed “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing dialogue/not have to think too much as to how characters would naturally respond to each other

Narrative-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “movement/action” scenes to “discussion” scenes
  • May have long stretches of description without any dialogue or summaries of dialogue rather than actual discussion.
  • Provide great descriptions of characters but not feel comfortable with unique “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing narrative/develop brilliant action, but struggle to make conversations sound “natural”

These lists aren’t exact or all inclusive, of course, but they at least give a quick snapshot if you aren’t sure what your strength might be. If you still aren’t sure, look over whatever you’re writing and see if you are defaulting to one or the other.

I, personally, have always been a dialogue-strong writer. My struggle, therefore, has been figuring out how to insert narrative in a way that doesn’t feel clunky in the middle of dialogue. I know several authors who started out narrative-strong and have had to figure out how to make their dialogue sound natural. It doesn’t matter which your strength is, part of going from “okay” to “great” is learning how to do your weakness just as well as your strength. And that means practicing even if those parts seem awful and strained compared to what you’re naturally good at. Furthermore, when reading, pay careful attention to dialogue/narrative that you find well written and critically try to determine what about it works and what doesn’t. By identifying your weaknesses, you can become better as a writer overall, rather than just making what you’re already good at better.

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