Monday, 24 May 2010

Strolling through literary fiction, galloping through commercial fiction

This may be an obvious observation but I read literary fiction much slower than commercial fiction. Based on an exercise I read about on the yingleyangle blog (which has amazing advice for writers) I've been comparing the layouts of the pages and evidently literary fiction has long chunks of narrative without dialogue, whereas commercial fiction is mostly dialogue with the odd paragraph of narrative.

Now, in the report on my novel I was told I used too much narrative so I set out to splash it with dialogue, but there came a moment where the dialogue was flooding the pages and I was loosing my voice. I like narrative, I know too much makes it boring -I often skip it in books when there's too much-, but a balanced amount helps the reader visualize the scene and actions in detail and immerse oneself in the plot.

My point is, I think there is a tendency to include more dialogue to the detriment of narrative, but then literary fiction enjoys greater prestige among literary critics so, in theory, this is what we should be aiming at if we want to become "proper writers". Here I'm being sarcastic because I don't believe literary is better than commercial, just different styles for different tastes and different storylines.

I believe our voice will determine the right balance between dialogue and narrative but it will also depend on the genre we're writing and the audience we're targeting.

Do you find narrative makes books too slow and tedious? And do you feel the pace of books with barely any descriptions is too fast?


  1. I read both commercial and literary fiction. I have been known skip the boring descriptions, but that's usually if I feel it's not relevant to the story. But then, if I've come out of the story world enough to be able to skim bits, something's gone wrong somewhere. I like dialogue. It's fast paced and tells you a lot about the characters.

    As a writer, I tend to write lots of dialogue with just enough description to convey the time/place/mood etc. Unfortunately, this makes my books a bit on the short side...


  2. Jeev, I tend to jump descriptions when the plot is so intriguing I just want to know what happens, or when I'm finding the book boring and just want to get to the interesting part.
    My books are on the short side too, it's just so difficult to get it right, isn't it!

  3. The story is my main interest.

    I don't mind whether the story is conveyed primarily through dialogue or through narrative - although I generally prefer a balance between the two - if the story doesn't grip me, I stop reading.

    Liz X

  4. Let's face it, literary fiction doesn't get the readership commercial fiction does, and I'd rather be read than not read. My books can be overloaded with dialogue (comes of being an ex-actress), but I try and put the odd bit of description in, too! But, as I used to say to my students, Thomas Hardy wouldn't be published today - all those pages of description at the beginning! And Anna Karenina - Well! But it's all to do with readers. These days, we live in a sound-bite society, and readers are used to instant gratification; straight into the story and no messing. That's why the popular soaps have 30 second scenes.

  5. Liz, as you, if the plot grips me, I'll go through any amount of narrative, but I'll probably take twice as long to read it.

    Lesley, I like your thoughts on Hardy and Karenina. I often wonder about that too.
    I think also dialogue brings you closer to the characters, and we tend to be more interested in the people than their surroundings, but I still like the odd paragraph of description to imagine the scenery.

  6. This is interesting. I find dialogue 'easy' so I tend to put a lot in. However on a recent critique, I was told it read rather like a script and that I should add more narrative! It is about getting that balance.

    I found your blog through Anita Burgh btw.

    warm wishes

  7. Debbie, maybe we should exchange manuscripts, I'll fill in yours with narrative and you can fill in mine with dialogue!!
    I love Anita Burgh's blog, she's a great help to "yet-to-be-published" writers.

  8. I like dialogue, probably because it's quick to read and I'm more of scanning kind of reader. But I wouldn't want a book without some narrative - I think the right mix is critical. I tend to write too much narrative, then I end up chopping it and rewriting it as dialogue.

  9. I prefer literary fiction over commercial, but it's not really because of the pace; it's just that a lot of faster-paced novels focus more on plot rather than character, and I rarely read anything that does not have a balance between the two. I want a good story AND multi-dimensional characters that I can get invested in. I don't always have the time or energy to read, so I have to be selective. ;]

  10. Amanda, I think you can find multi-dimensional characters in commercial fiction. I think you get to know them through their dialogues and they're usually well described physically too.
    By the way, I tried to leave a comment on your last post but the comment box doesn't show up.

  11. I am a fan of dialogue, though I struggle with it in my own writing I do enjoy reading it, it helps move the story along better for me. I think it all comes down to voice though for me, if the voice is good it doesn't matter what the book is filled with, the writer will keep me wanting more.

    I love your blog! I found you over at Talli Rolands and thought I would drop in and say hello! So HI!

  12. Hi Jen,
    Glad to see you here, and I love Talli R's blog.
    I have to alternate between literary and commercial. I like both -if I like the plot, of course- but I try to switch from one style to the other or I get a bit tired of it.

  13. Curioso... sabes que soy una lectora empedernida que lee absolutamente todo lo que cae en sus manos. Nunca he dejado un libro a medias. Nunca me he saltado partes de ningún libro. Debo de ser más rara que un ciervo en la luna!!!!

    A mi me gustan más los libros con más narrativa que diálogo... será porque me gusta leer!


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  15. The problem has been rectified! I think.

    And I know there's a lot of good commercial fiction out there. I'm just picky. So long as the dialogue is well-written and not stale, the insight into the characters can definitely be powerful.


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