Articles / On Dialogue

So what is creative narrative, you ask?

Well, it’s basically descriptive narrative that is used in conjunction with dialogue. It identifies who is speaking.

Naturally, the next question is: why is creative narrative better than using a dialogue tag? After all, tossing in a dialogue tag is much easier.

That answer is not so simple. The truth is it’s not always better to use creative narrative. In fact, if used improperly, creative narrative can cause all kinds of issues with dialogue such as: stilted, unoriginal, and repetitive text–which ironically is what you are trying to avoid by replacing those dialogue tags. When used correctly, it improves the flow and tone and adds showing to your story. This showing improves your characterizations, descriptions, and settings. It also fosters emotional connection with your characters.

Instead of spending the bulk of this article trying to argue the benefits of creative narrative, I’m just going to show you through the genesis of a scene.

Take a look at the sample below.

–Dialogue without creative narrative

“What are you up to?” Tom asked.

“Not much,” Tina replied. “You going out later?” she queried.

“I was thinking about it,” he said.

“Want company?” Tina asked.

“Not really,” Tom replied.

“Oh,” Tina mumbled.

So, what’s wrong with this dialogue? Well, for one it’s stale–really, really stale. Second, it is hard to infer much about the interaction between these two. We could use creative dialogue tags to liven it up a bit, right? (Creative dialogue tags are dialogue tags that are not necessarily indicative of speech but are seen in novels anyway. For more on this check out our article on this.)

–Dialogue using creative dialogue tags instead of creative narrative

What are you up to? Tom cross-examined her.

“Not much,” Tina pointed out. “You going out later?” she interrogated.

“I was thinking about it,” he postulated.

“Want company?” Tina bombarded him.

“Not really,” Tom teased.

“Oh,” Tina sputtered.

Yeeeeeaaaaah…No. Moving on. The creative dialogue tags didn’t work, so perhaps it’s time to dial it back a bit, use some of those boring old dialogue tags, and add a dash of a tried-and-true author crutch: adverbs and adjectives.

–Dialogue tags + adverbs/adjectives

“What are you up to?” A happy Tom asked curiously.

“Not much,” Tina pointed out. “You going out later?” she inquired, hopeful.

“I was thinking about it,” he said nonchalantly.

“Want company?” An all-too-eager Tina asked in a overly subdued manner.

“Not really,” Tom replied in a deadpan tone.

“Oh,” a heartbroken Tina sputtered sadly. 

That doesn’t quite work either, does it?

Creative narrative to the rescue.

But first we need to discuss when creative narrative goes wrong. Below, I’ve listed the primary elements that wreck creative narrative: the BIG Four

1. Repetitive or narrowly focused body language

  • Action/descriptions involving sight: looking, gazing, staring, glancing, eyeing, eyes, etc.
  • Actions/descriptions involving the mouth: smiling, frowning, smirking, grinning, lips, kissing, lip biting, etc.
  • Sounds that express emotion: chuckling, laughing, guffawing, chortling, sighing, huffing, sniffing, snorting, exhaling/inhaling, etc.

2. Telling emotion that should be shown (e.g. telling the reader that a character is nervous rather than showing)

3. Disembodied motion (For more on this, check out Candace Johnson’s Guest Post)

4. Telling what has been shown (also explaining what has been shown or stating the obvious)

Since an example of this is worth a 1000 words of description, here you go. 🙂

   Tom strolled up to the counter, whistling happily. “What are you up to?” His eyes twinkled and there was a huge smile on his lips.

   Tina’s hand ran through her hair, and she stared at him in shock with a dumbfounded look. “Not much.” She’d loved Tom for many years. This was her chance. “You going out later?” she inquired, hopeful, her heart almost beating out of her chest.

   He shrugged, his smile fading to a slight smirk. “I was thinking about it,” he said nonchalantly. Perhaps too nonchalantly.

   Tina blinked. “Want company?” She slapped her hand over her mouth, hating that she’d just given away her eager interest in him. 

   “Not really,” Tom replied in a deadpan tone, not meeting her gaze.

   Tears filled her eyes. “Oh,” a heartbroken Tina sputtered, discombobulated.

What’s wrong with the example above? Everything listed in the BIG Four. Plus, it’s choppy, cheesy, and the dialogue is boring.

Good discourse is as much about the dialogue as it is about the narrative that surrounds it. Creative narrative cannot breathe life into crappy dialogue and great dialogue can be undermined by the overuse or under use of creative narrative. Truly dynamic dialogue is a mixture of great conversation and a good foundation. That means, we need to tear down and rebuild our example.

What is our example missing? Well, a lot. Dynamic discourse, showing, setting, emotion, the inner-workings of the characters’ minds, personality, a storyline, and body language. So how are we going to add that? Well, with the proper use of creative narrative, of course!

–Dialogue with creative narrative

   When Tom saw his old friend, he let out a whoop that caused the cashier to double scan a package of energy drinks. “Tina, my girl! What’s up?”

   Tom! Tina grinned and a slight rosy hue filled her cheeks. She hoped Tom couldn’t see the pounding of her heart through her low-cut T-shirt. Those jeans he was wearing were enough to keep her in the confessional for a week. Why, oh why, hadn’t she at least made herself presentable before stopping by the store to pick up some ice cream for her nieces? Discreetly and quickly, she finger-combed her tangled hair.

   That cocky grin she remembered from high school was back on his face. He was waiting for her response. Darn it, she’d taken too long to respond. Too busy staring at his ripped body, no doubt.

   Tina cleared her throat and begged God and his angels to perform a miracle and help her not embarrass herself in front of this man. “Well, you know, not much.” She gave what she thought was a nonchalant shrug and tightened her grip on the rickety convenience basket she was rhythmically tapping against her thigh.

   “What? No hug for me?”

   Slowly, to hide her suddenly trembling hands, Tina set her groceries on the belt. She stepped toward Tom at the same moment he tried to maneuver past his empty cart. There was a loud screech. A baby started wailing behind her and Tom groaned. He wasn’t the only one. He moved forward again and then muttered a curse when his jeans caught on the cart and ripped.

   Tina reached for the buggy. “Here let–”

   Tom yanked his pant leg, shoving the buggy forward. It slipped from Tina’s steadying grip and slammed into her midsection. She tumbled onto the cracked linoleum floor.

   “Sh–!”

   A throat cleared behind Tina. Undoubtedly it was the baby-momma, or the toddler-momma behind her. That lady had a brood the size of trying-to-get-my-own-reality-show proportions. Tina murmured an apology.

   Could this day get worse? Crying baby? Check. Meet up with hot never-boyfriend? Check. Falling on butt in front of said never-boyfriend? Yep, that too. And what in God’s name were her fingers touching?

   Tina jerked her hand out from under the candy display unit. Eww to infinity. God and her were totally having a come-to-Jesus later.

   “Hey, sorry,” he said. “I never thought… I just bought these pants and– Are you all right?” He held out his hand. “Here let me–“

   Tina laughed. “The last time one of us said that it ended in disaster.”

   He turned his head, something toward the back of the line catching his attention, and then said, “I think I’ll take the risk.”

   She reached out to grab his hand but he jerked his back.

   “What is that!” he screeched. Screeched. All effeminate-like. 

   Tina would’ve found it humorous if not for the gray-black, disgusting tar-like substance on her hand. Add to that some bubble gum, 100 year-old remnants of chewing tobacco, and what appeared to be a mercury dime and she felt like letting out a screech of her own.

   Tom snagged a pack of wet wipes from a display and ripped it open. He handed three to Tina.

   “Thanks,” she muttered.

   “Yo! Buddy, what’s the hold up?” someone yelled. Someone big, and mean, and probably tattooed, if his voice was anything to go by.

   Tom playfully grimaced and then nodded toward the cashier. “Guess we better…”

   “Yeah.” She noticed he didn’t offer to help her stand this time.

   Tina had never been so glad to get out of a store but as she stood near her car, fiddling with her keys, she wished she was back inside with her hand in slime and her mind full of witty things to say. “So, um, you planning on going out later?” Oh God, he’d think she was asking him out.

   “Thinking about it.”

   Tom leaned against the bumper her car, and she tried not to notice the rip in his pants. High on his left thigh. Were those his boxers peeking out of the tear? Gah! Red alert! Look up!

   “Want company?” Tina slapped a metaphorical hand over the mouth of her obviously filterless inner pervert. Stupid boxers addling her brain. “I mean…uh…”

   Tom shrugged, kicking his foot against the crumbling blacktop. “Nah.”

   “Oh.” Tina turned toward the car, determined not to wait a second longer to scratch off her “God is my co-pilot” bumper sticker. She glared at the sky. I thought we had a deal. I gave you a second chance after that fiasco in the store. I know you’re busy running the known universe and everything, but a little help’d be nice.

   “Look,” he said, his shoulders stiff and chin lifted slightly. “Obviously you heard about me and Dina and the breakup and all. Did Brandon put you up to this?”

   “Brandon…Dina…what?”

   Tom relaxed and rubbed the back of his neck. He opened his mouth and then shut it. Finally he sighed. “God, I’m such a jerk. I feel like all I’m saying today is sorry. Brandon’s been trying to…” He shook his head. “Listen, want to get a cup of coffee?”

   “I can’t.”

   “Yeah, I get it,” Tom said, his voice cracking.

   Tina grabbed Tom’s arm as he turned to walk away. “Ice cream.”

   “What?”

   Tina laughed. “I came to the store to get ice cream. For my nieces’ birthday party. You remember the twins, right?” She bit her lip. “You could come over. That is, if you don’t mind a houseful of screaming eight-year-old girls.”

   He grinned. “Sounds awful.”

   “There’ll be a pony.”

   “Deal.”

With creative narrative, six very simple lines of dialogue have become something much deeper.

But did you notice? I used all the elements listed in the BIG Four in this scene, and I included regular and creative dialogue tags. The literary “crimes” listed in the BIG Four aren’t necessarily no-nos of a never-use variety. It’s more that those elements lend themselves to overuse and can become a crutch for an author. And when that happens, the use of creative narrative hinders more than it helps. It’s all about balance. In the same way that using only dialogue tags is not good for your book, using only creative narrative won’t work either. So, here’s some tips to help you find the middle ground.

Use creative narrative–sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Not every piece of dialogue needs line after line of narrative attached to it. Vary the amount you use. One line here, three lines there. And vary your sentence structures. If you use the same amount of narrative on each line, things will begin to feel plodding and stiff. If you use the same structures, things will feel choppy.

It’s extremely easy to overdo body language involving the eyes, mouth, and sounds. Incorporate all kinds of body language not just the stuff that happens from the neck up. Yes, we pay the most attention to people’s expressions, just don’t forget that there’s a whole body that needs to be included in the story. When you only mention the face, eyes and mouth, it creates a sense that the characters are balloon heads instead of people.

Use dialogue tags with adverbs and adjectives–just be judicious in your usage. It’s much better to show a character acting in an anxious manner than to say someone “replied anxiously”. That said, sometimes it is best to tell something rather than show it. But more often than not, show.

Even disembodied motion can have a place–rarely–especially if used to indicate the narrator’s focus in a showing manner. You can even throw in a creative dialogue tag or ten–I’ll turn a blind eye–just do it when it’s the best way to convey what you want to say. And if you want to add some context to that “telling” action you’ve just shown, well, that’s okay too, in moderation.

You don’t have to choose between dialogue tags and creative narrative. A good scene incorporates both effectively. Use all the elements. When you find a balance, you’re going to have something awesome.

Now back to writing.

This concludes our series on dialogue. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series and we appreciate you reading. 🙂


Comments

  1. Stellar post! You guys teach me something every day. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Anne Hammond Says: March 28, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I started reading this post and was impressed. Unfortunately, as soon as I read ‘discretely’ instead of ‘discreetly’ I was lost. No longer concentrating on content, I could only focus on individual words. So if you could please fix ‘discretely’ I’ll go back and read it again!

  3. Great article, Shay. So much helpful information!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: