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Ask Esther: Finding Balance Between Prose and Dialog and Reader Feedback

Posted on Mon, Feb 11 2013 9:00 am by Esther Porter

Editor's Note: One of the new features in our catalog and event catalogs is the Ask Esther column. The column features Esther Porter answering questions from writers about craft and process. Have a question for Esther for the next catalog? Send it our way at submit@loft.org by February 13. 

How do you find the right balance of prose and dialogue in your novel? How much of either is "too much"?

Writing is a balancing act. So much in life goes unsaid, and so much of what’s unsaid is important. Like most feats of balance, it helps to know what happens when we go to either extreme: all dialog and no prose, or all prose and no dialog. If done well, the extremes can be the way to go. But how often are they warranted? Seldom. Life usually comes somewhere in the middle. It’s a mixture of signals from everywhere in our environment.

As humans, we have to decide which signals are important to pay attention to. Luckily our brains take care of a lot of this filtering without us having to do it consciously. As writers, however, we must observe the world in a way that reveals how the human mind takes in information. We communicate with our whole bodies, and the environment affects our state of being. So we must do our best to observe interactions holistically, then translate that reality into the worlds we create.

It’s easy to overdose on dialog. It can water down a scene by allowing characters to reveal too much. It can even make the reader feel like the characters are floating in space without the context of setting. But when there isn’t enough dialog, when the conversation is summarized by the narrator for example, the characters can start to feel distant. The lens is pulled away. Finding this balance all depends on the tone, emotion, and situation of the scene. The wonderful thing is that you can be the judge. There’s no right or wrong way to view the world, as long as it’s true to the characters.

We have to ask ourselves how each piece of information in a story should be communicated to the reader. What if we had a scene with two characters who speak their minds easily, and another involving two characters who are guarded around each other? If you wrote two versions of the same conversation with these two sets of characters, how would they differ? Try it out and see how the balance of prose to dialog shifts.

When should I trust my own judgment of a piece over my readers' feedback?

Our readers often come from many different backgrounds with varying levels of expertise and social awareness. Although it’s sometimes enlightening to learn how the average Joe reacts to your work, it’s also important to have the reactions of readers you know well, be they friends or classmates, enemies or relatives. Despite the impossibility of knowing the inner workings of these complex individuals, a little context of where they are in life can provide the necessary perspective.

When readers try to turn your work into something it’s not, fixate on a detail that isn’t central to the story, or tend to miss the central theme of the stories you workshop together, then you can probably let their comments go. Sometimes your readers won’t share your level of knowledge on a particular subject, making it difficult for them to pick up on important references. Their comments can be informative in their own way, but you certainly don’t want or need to take the advice of unskilled readers.

Knowing your own intentions is key to navigating a workshop. For example, are you more concerned with the average reader understanding your work, or are you more interested in giving a very specific type of advanced reader a challenge? How does your current reader reflect the type of reader you envision reading your finished work? If your readers don’t sit well with unanswered questions and they’re critiquing your mystery novel, the answer should be pretty clear.

It’s interesting to see what happens in a group setting. Some loudmouths like to speak up first (I might be one of them), and some prefer to offer their advice once they’ve allowed others to speak. Just because one person is louder than the other doesn’t mean his or her opinion is any more valid than that of the quiet ones. And vice versa. Unfortunately, the loudmouths can sometimes influence the opinions of everyone in the workshop, too. I suggest reading The Brain-Dead Megaphone by George Saunders to gain some insights into just how seriously you should take these loudmouths.

Esther Porter is a Founding Editor at Revolver, an arts and culture magazine based in Minneapolis (www.around-around.com). She earned her English degree at the University of Minnesota, then spent five years working for Coffee House Press. She has four children's books forthcoming from Capstone Press in 2013. To learn more, visit her website: www.estherporter.com.