Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, February 18, 2011

Writing Tips - Using the Elements of Fiction to Create Pacing In Your Novel

A lot of books are very dialogue heavy. Other books rely mainly on narration to tell their story. Others, especially thrillers, rely on action packed scenes. However, the best books always strike a good balance using all three of the above elements: dialogue, narrative, and action. Scenes that weave dialogue, narrative, and action together are much more emotionally engaging for your reader than scenes utilizing only one of the elements of fiction writing.

The following is the opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” In it, Fitzgerald does a wonderful job of placing us in the world of the Buttons.

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

I shall tell you what occurred and let you judge for yourself.

The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in antebellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies – Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”

On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock, dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.

When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement – as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.

Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period. “Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”

The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.

“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush. “What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What –”

“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply. He appeared somewhat irritated.

“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.

Doctor Keene frowned. “Why yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.

“Is my wife all right?”


“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation, “I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering: “Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me – ruin anybody.”

“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”

“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!”

Look how much Fitzgerald accomplishes here by masterfully weaving together dialogue, narrative, and just a little action. We know what year it is. We know the Buttons are Southerners. We know where in society they are placed. We know what Mr. Button does for a living. We know Mrs. Button has just given birth, and we know the baby is so unusual that the Buttons’ family physician wants nothing more to do with the family. We know that Mr. Button is highly agitated.

Now, how did Fitzgerald know where to put what? How did he know when to convey his information through dialogue and when to convey it through narrative and when to insert action? When to use what is mostly an intuitive process for most writers, especially very good writers, so Fitzgerald probably didn’t do much thinking about it. What he no doubt did do was put himself inside the mind of both Mr. Roger Button and Doctor Keene. He probably tried to feel what they would have been feeling, and then he conveyed those feelings to us.

During your first drafts, just “go with the flow.” Go with what your intuition tells you is right. When you revise, you’ll be able to tell if your scenes are dialogue heavy or narrative heavy or if they lack the proper rhythm, and you’ll be able to adjust accordingly.

Although most really superior novels and short stories will weave dialogue, narrative, and action together into one fabulous braid of a story, there are times when it’s appropriate to concentrate more on one element than the others. My writing partner, Mark Spencer and I concentrated on dialogue for portions of our novel Graceland. This excerpt revolves around the male and female protagonist, Paul and Norma Jean as they speed toward the Graceland mansion on a Tennessee highway:

We were on the highway, Norma Jean driving her Kia very fast, the car's speakers throbbing with "Jailhouse Rock."

"What you do?" she hollered over Elvis.

"What?" I shouted back. A mileage marker whipped past in such a blur I couldn't read it.

"What are you? How you live?"

"Structural engineer."

She shook her head. "Don't know what that means."

"You always drive this fast?"

"Don't you like to get where you wanta be fast?"

"Some times I just like to enjoy the scenery."

"Not much scenery to enjoy right here. Pretty dull part of Tennessee if you ask me." She moved her head back and forth in rhythm with the music.

As we whooshed past a semi, the wind stream pushed the little car about three feet toward the concrete highway divider.

"I like the idea of getting places alive, too!" I shouted.


"I want to live!"

"Oh, yeah, honey. We're gonna have us a good time, don't you worry."

"If we get there alive!"

"Don't worry. We've got years ahead of us. Especially me. Now you're old?"

"I stopped counting at thirty-nine."

"So you're about forty-nine? Anyway, I figure we've got 'bout thirty years together. That's enough time to have some fun. Hey, I like your suit, but you can take your tie off now and relax a little. You know Clide--she's named after her great-grandma--it's 'Clide' with a 'i'--she thought you were a federal agent. She told me she'd seen that look before."

"What look?"

"Your look. Clide's paranoid. Always has been. She thinks between federal agents and space aliens she never really gets any privacy. Course with a name like Clide she grew up with everybody makin' fun of her. When I was a kid I told my mom I wanted to change my name to Priscilla. I like your name. Paul. You weren't named for Paul McCartney, were you?" Before I had a chance to answer, she went right on, talking now at about the same speed she was driving. "No, you're too old. When you were born, nobody knew who he was. You think it would be bad to name a kid 'Elvis'? If you and me have a boy, I think we oughta name him Elvis. For Halloween, we'll get him a little Elvis costume--ohhh, he'll be so cute. I don't think the other kids will make fun of him. Do you?"

I was squinting into the glaring sun. The highway shimmered, unreal, and I was thinking that maybe I now knew how astronauts felt taking off from the launching pad, those G-forces scrambling your gut and your brain.

I said, "Pull over. Please."


"Pull over. Anywhere along here."

"Why? You sick?" She turned Elvis down.


"My drivin' really scarin' you that bad? You wanta drive?" The landscape was slowing down. I felt like I was making the transition from an Impressionist painting to a Realist one. "No, you can keep driving. We just need to stop and talk for a minute."

“We been talkin’.”

“I need to tell you something. I need you to understand something about me.”

The emphasis on dialogue in this scene highlights Norma Jean’s impatience and her freewheeling sense of fun and adventure. In this scene, Mark and I didn’t want the reader to get bogged down or distracted by narration; we didn’t want the pace of the story to be slowed. We wanted Norma Jean’s words to take center stage, to overwhelm Paul as his sense of unease grows. The scene above just wouldn’t have had the same impact if we’d woven narrative throughout the dialogue. Norma Jean is a “take charge” kind of girl. She’s a girl who knows what she wants when she wants it, and it never occurs to her that others aren’t quite as spontaneous as she is. A lot is revealed about both Norma Jean and Paul by isolating the dialogue for part of the scene.

When you’re weaving dialogue, narrative, and action, consider the pacing of your story and the effect you want to achieve. If you want to show conflict, for example, then a “dialogue only” scene might very well be in order. If you want to convey something more reflective, then perhaps “narrative only” might work very well.
The following is a passage from Anne Michaels’ book, The Winter Vault. The male protagonist, Avery, is reflecting on how it might be to grow old with his wife, Jean, the female protagonist. Because his mood is so reflective, narrative, and long sentences, suit Michaels’ purpose much better than dialogue would have, and it slows down the pace of the novel, as it should.

Avery had already imagined, in those first months with Jean, what the chance to grow old with her would mean: not regret at how her body would change, but the private knowledge of all she’d been. Sometimes, his ache so keen, Avery felt that only in old age would he finally have full possession of her youthful flesh. It would be his secret, forged in all the nights next to each other.

In the flat on Clarendon, when Avery couldn’t sleep, Jean whispered to him while he stroked her arm. She recited a list of all the native Ontario plants she could think of: hair grass, arrow-leaved aster, the heath aster, swamp aster, long-leaved bluets, foxglove, side-oats grama, the compass plant whose leaves always align on the north-south axis. The sand dropseed, turtlehead, great St. John’s wort, sneezeweed, balsam ragwort, fox sedge, umbrella sedge, the little bluestream…and then sleep grew farther away still and he began to touch her with purpose.

Because the above is something upon which Avery is reflecting, it’s best to use straight narrative. He could convey his thoughts to another in dialogue, but the magic would probably be broken. The scene is just too reflective to carry dialogue well.

There are no hard and fast rules about when to use dialogue, when to use narrative, and when to use action, and how to blend the three for maximum effect. You just have to find your story’s rhythm, and you have to write every day. Still, there are a few questions you can ask yourself when doing your revisions:

Is my story moving too slowly? Does it feel as though it’s getting bogged down? (If so, you might try using more dialogue.)

Do my readers need more backstory or more information about my characters? (Dialogue and narration might work here, or even just one of the two.)

Is my story moving along too fast? Do I need to step back and let the story – and the reader – breath? (If so, cut back on the dialogue and use more narrative.)

Do I want to show my reader that one of my characters is mulling something over in his mind? (Definitely use narrative.)

Is my story boring? Does it need some spice and liveliness? (Try dialogue.)

Is my story top heavy in any way?

Are my characters conveying too much backstory in dialogue?

Whether you end up writing a fast paced thriller or a slower paced, more reflective character driven novel, let the elements of storytelling do double, and sometimes triple, duty for you. Let them reveal backstory, drive the narrative forward, and reveal character. All three are important. Most of all, of course, make sure the pacing of your novel fits the characters and the story you’ve created.

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