Narration vs Dramatization
Storytelling comes in many forms, and on a craft level, two methods of storytelling can make a great impact on the reading experience: narration vs. dramatization.
Narration is when you summarize an action and tell the reader what happened, whereas dramatization is where you show the reader a scene through dialogue and action.
Both have their place—a story that is pure narration creates distance, while one of wall-to-wall dramatization will drag, pacing wise. The key is to discover which storytelling mode benefits the scene at hand and will help the readers to best connect to the story at the moment. What do they need to know vs. what do they need to see (and experience)?
Narration vs. Dramatization vs. Telling vs. Showing
To this end, narration vs. dramatization is kind of a cousin to show vs. tell. Narration has a lot of similarities with telling, while dramatization aligns more clearly with showing. However, they are not one in the same, though they may lead to the same benefits and disadvantages with readers. A story heavy with narration will feel like a lot of telling.
Telling is, essentially, passive: you as the author are telling the reader what they need to know or you want them to know. How someone feels, backstory, what someone is thinking, what they did between scenes. And this is where narrative can overlap. Sometimes the most prudent choice for your book is to narrate—a transition between scenes, or a juicy slice of backstory. The key is always balance—you should be dramatizing—and showing—in critical scenes, a lot of the time.
But dramatization is not explicitly showing; again, they are cousins. You can suffer from telling in a dramatized scene, and dramatization is not always the best choice in all situations. Showing, drawing out a scene, can often drag down the pace of a book, or feel like overkill.
Over-Reliance on Narration & How to Fix It
So what does it mean when your book has too much narration? Because of the relationship to telling, books that are mostly narration will feel frustratingly distant. The reader will have trouble gaining a mental picture of what is going on, will have trouble feeling connected to characters and relationships because they are not experiencing scenes along with the main character.
So books with heavy narration will suffer from character development and engagement issues. You may hear feedback that you are telling too much.
You want to look for opportunities to dramatize character relationships, interactions, and backstory where you are narrating. When describing character relationships, most often, you’ll get way more mileage out of characterization and your readers will feel better connected both to characters and character relationships if you dramatize first meetings/the first time readers see them on the page.
So instead of a line or two saying . . .
“Maggie was my best friend. She was always there with a wry comment, and we always had each other’s backs.”
. . . try dramatizing a scene where you introduce Maggie, and have her crack wry comments. Show her having the main character’s back. The additional benefits of dramatizing this sort of scene is you can do so much more story work than just introducing Maggie. The setting you choose for the introduction will enable you to flesh out your world, tell the reader things about your main character and your secondary characters by how they interact in that setting, and you can create reader engagement for multiple characters and plot points in a well-drawn introduction scene.
Similarly, when it comes to conveying backstory, often you can instead dramatize a short instance of flashback—a character recalling an exchange of dialogue, for instance—which will have a greater impact than an info-dump paragraph about a past relationship. Note that flashback is tricky to balance and should be used sparingly, but every so often dramatizing in this case can solve character motivation notes—if an emotion isn’t landing, it may be because the reader feels disconnected from the context because it was delivered via narration.
Another place to look for narration where you should be dramatizing is with key character emotions. During big moments, instead of glossing over how your character feels or what is happening to them, consider dramatizing. “They kissed me” is all well and good, but if this is the culmination of everything your book has worked up to, it will make for a more satisfying reader experience to dramatize this big moment.
Over-Reliance on Dramatization & How to Fix It
On the flip-side, if you are relying too heavily on dramatization you will likely have a pacing problem. If you dramatize absolutely everything that happens over the course of a story, you will be drawing out and showing action for the mundane parts of your plot, too. The reader doesn’t need an exchange of dialogue, full description every time your character moves from one place to another, or sees another character. Part of leveling up as a writer is learning when a dramatized scene isn’t adding anything to character or plot development, and what you’ve done in two pages can be summarized in two lines.
Very often this is how we end up with “starting in the wrong place” syndrome—a writer, while trying to discover their story, dramatizes absolutely everything their character does. The reader just doesn’t need to experience the character waking up, brushing their teeth, showering, eating breakfast, talking to their parents, taking the bus to school, etc. etc. etc. (Generally, starting with a character waking up isn’t the most dynamic place to start a novel!) That said, starting off your work with dramatizing is usually the way to go—it’s more engaging—but choosing the dramatization wisely is the key.
Look for places in your book where characters are talking, and you are showing lengthy scenes of action or transition but neither the character arcs nor plot growth benefits. Scenes that are repetitive—you only need so many dramatized scenes to establish rapport between friends, romantic interests, etc. Where can you artfully transition a scene using narration?
A Final Pep Talk
I want to stress that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you are doing either of these things too much. It is normal to both over-narrate and over-dramatize at various points in your manuscript, or at different stages. For many authors, dramatizing everything is an essential part of a first draft—revision is where they look for spots to swap to narration. For many others, the opposite is true—narration is telling themselves the story, and in revisions they find lots of places to dramatize, instead.
As you write more and level up as a writer, you’ll learn your own drafting quirks and needs in revision. And part of leveling up is learning about the problem in the first place. Maybe now notes you’ve received will make more sense—perhaps a note about not connecting to the characters or relationships was due to narration issues. Comments on pacing or starting in the wrong place may be due to over-dramatization.
I also encourage you to read with an eye to these concepts. Read work by your favorite authors and see what choices they make and where. Think about the books you had trouble connecting to, or that dragged, and analyze the narration vs. dramatization in those works. In looking to how other writers successfully—or unsuccessfully—balance these concepts, it will go a long way to improving them in your own work.