One Writer’s Journey

August 24, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance, part 2

Yesterday I discussed just how to balance these elements in a chapter book.  In my two page sample, 3 lines were narrative, in this case interior dialogue.  Half of what remained was dialogue and the other half was action. I had been reading about not using too much narrative and wanted to see how much was too much for these younger independent readers.  Apparently, I am going to have to keep it tight.

Middle grade

But what about books for older readers?  Today I have samples from a middle grade novel, Gossamer by Lois Lowry, a young adult novel, The Demon’s Lexicon by Rees Brennan, and an adult novel, The Right Side by Spencer Quinn.  These were chosen without an ounce of science.  Basically all three were within reach of my desk chair.

So how do the various elements balance out?  In the middle grade novel, dialogue (again in green) makes up about 1/2 of the total text.  I counted roughly 26 lines of dialogue.  The rest was split about equally between action (orange) and narrative (pink).  That large block of narrative on the lower left is a flashback.  The rest is interior dialogue.  All in all, roughly 1/4 of the total is narrative.

Young adult

Like the middle grade, the young adult novel is fantasy so I expected it to be narrative/setting heavy.  This time around the blocks are almost equal.  Narrative has a slightly larger portion with 22 lines.  A small amount of this is flashback and even less is interior dialogue.  But I expected very little interior dialogue.  This mean character is not particularly self-aware.  Most of the narrative is setting.  19 lines each are dialogue and action.  So that’s a fairly even balance between the three elements.  And, yes, these two pages were chosen at random.


The adult novel was a completely different situation.  Action takes up half of the total with 31 lines.  Dialogue?  A scant 9 lines.  The remaining 22 lines are narrative.  Before making any decisions on this book, I’d want to do another random sample to see if it would have more dialogue. Why?  Because it felt like it had more dialogue than this.  That said, it is a book about a vet with PTSD.  She is far from chatty so this might be the rule while the parts I’m remember where the exception.

Whether your novel is a chapter book or an adult novel, it is clear that no single element should take up more than 50% of the total.  What works well for your book will vary with the type of book that you are writing as well as the type of scene. A battle scene will likely have more action than other scenes.  A scene where the sleuth solves the mystery might have more dialogue or narrative.

Still, you obviously can’t have any single element take up more than its fair share of space.  Not if you hope to achieve balance.


August 23, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:42 am
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Tuesday, I read a Writer’s Digest piece on what characters say and what they think.  The writer discussed needing to get the balance between dialogue and narrative just right.

Balancing dialogue, action and narrative was one of the things we discussed when I did the novel rewriting workshop with Darcy Pattison.  I remembered doing a manuscript mark-up to see what the proportions were in your manuscript before deciding what you needed to change.

But what is the correct balance?  I suspect that a chapter book manuscript needs a different balance than a middle grade or young adult novel.  But what would that balance look like?

You know me – I need to see the answer.  So I scanned two pages of a chapter book text.  In this case, I randomly chose two pages in Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne.  Then I printed the scan and got out my highlighters.  Okay, in reality I tried highlighting it on-screen only to discover that I can’t mouse a straight line to save myself.  Any-who, I got out my highlighters.

I marked up dialogue in green.  Every time Annie or Jack speak, green highlighter.  As you can see, that’s about half the text.

Then I marked the action in orange.  Again, that’s about half the remaining text.

Only three lines are highlighted in pink – that’s the narration.  In this case, it is inner dialogue.  Three short lines.

Part of it would be the age of the reader.  They want action (orange) or to see people interact (green).  Thinking about what might be or remembering things?  Not nearly as interesting and there just isn’t much room for that if you are writing for the 2nd and 3rd grade reader.  So this is the balance that I’m going to go for when I draft my own manuscript. Equal parts dialogue and action with just a dash of narrative.

How much narrative can you have in a middle grade or young adult novel?  More but I won’t be sure how much until I break out my highlighters.


October 24, 2012

How to Balance the Dialogue in Your Manuscript

One of the things that I’m taking a close look at in my manuscript is the dialogue.  As writers, we know dialogue is vital.  It creates white space for the reader.  It lets the characters be heard.  It drives the story forward.  But there has to be balance.

Sometimes a secondary character tries to take over the story.  That’s what I was afraid would happen.  My  main character can talk a blue streak but his  sidekick is more verbal.  I needed to make sure he didn’t take over.  Take a look at the marks in the left margin of my shrunken manuscript.  Each color represents a different speaker.  While some scenes have more red (the sidekick’s color) than others, red doesn’t dominate the verbal landscape. Whew!

So far so good.

I also need to have balance between the overall amount of dialogue, action and narrative.  The very beginning of my manuscript doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue but the chapter seems to  have a fair balance.  My main character is running from school to the local swimming pool.  He’s on the move and you see and hear what he sees and hears along the way.

Once my characters start talking, they yack and yack and yack.   Look at all that ink!   In some ways this is okay because they are usually doing something while they are talking.  I think.  I didn’t actually mark that and it is something I need to  do — use a highlighter throughout the text to show the action.

My biggest concern at this point is narrative.  Once things in my story get moving, they talk and they do but I very seldom show.  My setting goes by in a blur.  From swimming pool to shop space, I’m not sure the reader has the chance to take much in.  Obviously, after I highlight action, I’ll be highlighting narrative.

Dialogue may be important, but so are action and narrative and I definitely need to bring them all into balance.


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