Thursday, December 20, 2012

Balancing Thoughts, Description, Dialogue, and Action

We’ve all come across books filled with page after page of description. Many of us have also come across books never-ending internal monologue. Some of us might even have come across a book that was all action and dialogue, and thus lacked reflection and depth. These books stand out for their flaws.

These flaws are all symptoms of a much more basic problem: an unbalanced combination of thoughts, description, action, and dialogue.

Why Should the Four be Balanced?
Most if not all narration can be broken down into one of these four categories, and all work together to make a story functional. Finding a balance between the four will, not surprisingly, produce a well-rounded book that will appeal to a larger audience.

Giving Preferential Treatment to One Category
Have you noticed that you or authors your read tend to spend more time with one of these categories than the others? This is not a bad thing. In fact, most books do tend to lean towards at least one of the four categories. It’s part of what gives an author that particular voice that is wholly their own. But it’s important to not make one category so overbearing that it makes your story less enjoyable.

Ignoring a Category
On the flip side, you might see an author deemphasize one of these four categories. This tends to be more of a problem than giving preferential treatment, and this often indicates that a writer has overlooked an aspect of his or her book. Why? Take this example: Imagine having significantly less description than everything else. The story is moving forward, but you the reader might only have a vague idea of where the characters are and what the surroundings look like. This is not good because it can lead to confusion and frustration, and you don’t want readers to be angry at your story. Not after all the time you’ve invested.

Noticing and Fixing Imbalances 

Noticing Imbalances
There are two ways you can go about noticing whether your narration has an imbalance between one of these four categories. One is visual. If you tend to have lots of long paragraphs, you are probably inserting a significant amount of thoughts or description. If you have mostly thin, lean paragraphs, you are probably inserting a significant amount of dialogue and action. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve inserted too much of one category, but it is assign you prefer one or more categories over the others. 

Another way to figure out which category you rely on too much or too little is analyze what tends to be problematic for you. If your book is too slow, it’s probably because you rely more heavily on thoughts or description. If you have long lists of questions your book still needs to answer, then you might be focusing too much on action and dialogue.

Neither method is foolproof. For instance, you might have too much filler, and that’s why it’s slow—that filler could even involve action and dialogue. So take these methods with a grain of salt.

Fixing Imbalances
Fixing an imbalance depends on whether you have inserted too much or too little of one category. For instance, I have a tendency to write too many thoughts and too little description. Once you’ve identified your problem(s), dedicate a round of edits to inserting more or less of one or more categories into your manuscript.

When to Make These Edits
These are more technical edits that will polish your writing. I’d suggest not worrying about making these changes until you’ve fixed all the major problems with your book’s content. There’s no use wasting your time making these edits if you’re going to be rewriting entire scenes or chapters.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Something I noticed in myself and in someone I beta read for, and that's a tendency to pack the beginning of chapters with exposition, either in the form of scene setting or internal monologue.

    The tough part of all this, of course, is that sometimes something just works. The trick is knowing when that is. And I guess knowing is part of what makes someone go from 'aspiring author' to 'published author.'

    1. I do the same thing, Jeff, at least with the first chapter. Then after I'm a good ways into the book, I go back and rewrite it. I think sometimes writers need the exposition more for themselves than the readers--and much of the information ends up in other areas of the book anyway so it's not necessarily needed in the beginning.

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