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Limiting Narrative in Your Novel

 Liz here.

Years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to write long chunks of narration in novels. This telling, often descriptive in nature, might go on for pages and pages. There would be long stretches of narration between bits of dialogue. But that era is long gone. In this fast-paced world, readers want fast-paced stories. That means limiting the amount of narration you use.

Make every word count
With a limit on how much you can say outside of dialogue, you need to make every word count. In my editing, I often see new writers using long passages of flowery descriptions. We all had to write such descriptive papers in English class when we were in school. Now the challenge is to describe the setting and what is going on in the story and the characters feelings without using large chunks of narration.

The answer is to cut out every unnecessary word. Use only what you need to create the effect that you want. Think of this as a form of Impressionist painting. What the Impressionists were trying to do in their artwork was not to fill in every detail for their audience, but to create a general mood and feeling.

Find a large chunk of narration in your story. Challenge yourself to cut it down to a third of its present size. Get rid of the waste. Get rid of every word that doesn't need to be there. Use stronger adjectives and verbs. Trim and trim and trim some more. You'll discover that you don't miss what you've deleted.

Make every bit of information relevant
Related to this is making sure that the narrative you do use is relevant. Stick only to what is necessary to telling the story well. Unless a peanut butter and jelly sandwich plays an important part of your story, there is no reason for paragraphs showing the hero trying to decide whether to have peanut butter and jelly or bologna for lunch.

Since I'm a novelist, I do tend to embellish my conversations with a lot of details. Sometimes, that can be wearying to my family. My husband will tell me, "Get to the point." And that is what your readers will say to you also. Long rabbit trails, large chunks the back story, unnecessary details only slow down the pace of your story. Your readers want to find out what happens. Keep the story moving forward in order to keep your audience engaged.

Invoke all of the senses
When you do use narrative, make it rich. You can do this by including all of the senses, not just sight. Taste, smell, deal, and sound can all evoke strong responses in your readers. When you include as many of these as possible, you draw your readers into the book and play on their emotions. Not every sense needs to be in every scene, but be aware of using senses other than sight and changing up those senses as you progress through the story.

Show, don't
If you've been around fiction for any length of time, you will have heard this expression. Again, years ago, it was acceptable to do a lot of telling. Stories written in the third person omniscient point of view have a narrator. But think about the movies you've seen. There isn't an actor coming on screen to tell you what is happening. Instead, the cinematographer shows what is going on. The characters don't come out and say that they're feeling happy or sad or afraid. You see that in the expressions on their faces and in their body language. As you write, imagine yourself writing through the lens of the camera. How would you, as the director, direct the actors to move and to express themselves.

Narrative is not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, it's absolutely necessary to story. There is no such thing as the all-dialogue book. If there were, it likely wouldn't be a well told story. But knowing when and how to use narrative can set you apart as a writer and make your story shine.

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