There are tons of books and articles dedicated to the art of writing dialogue, but unless you’re writing screenplays, the bulk of your fictional word count is more than likely narrative. There are tons of books dedicated to that, too—more, I think—but I want to talk specifically about what narrative does, can do, for you.
I write alternate-world fantasy. Narrative is of particular importance to me, and to writers of fiction not-quite-meatspace, so I’m going to talk about my own work, but even if your fictional flavor is different from mine, I hope you find something of use to you here. I’m going to take apart my opening to Menyoral and try to tell you what I was doing and why.
It was a fair night, the last, perfect night of summer, and the stars shone cleanly down from a sky of blue velvet; but Oda the moon hid His shifting face from the world.
That’s my first sentence. I think it serves in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives information about when we are in time: the last, perfect night of summer, at the dark of the moon. It gives information about the weather: fair and clear. Third, it gives information regarding where we are: somewhere the moon is a god called Oda. Fourth, I think it’s pretty, and I chose words that would immediately create a dreamy mood (though in retrospect I wish I had said “last, lovely”) and then insert an element of doubt.
Six men stood in a fallow field.
This is a short sentence, simply placing the players, and for the rhythm involved when you vary sentence length, but I liked “fallow field” for the alliteration and the very slight old-fashioned feel.
Four, swathed in black, had placed themselves within a great diagram scythed into the grass, one at each compass point around a great gray stone.
Now we know a little more about most of the players in the scene, and can place them a little more firmly. The sentence also says, by connotation (especially if you are a regular reader of fantasy), that the four are involved in a magical undertaking, and raises a question for the reader: why? I have repeated “great” here, again for the old-fashioned feel, and for the rhythm of the piece.
Two wore tonsured heads and clean-shaven faces, carrying brass medallions around their necks; and two wore long beards and runes picked out on their heavy robes in thread of gold.
Here I’m describing the four more thoroughly. I’m also dividing the players into two groups, monks and magi, but in so many words I haven’t said so. I’ve also let you know that in this world, both clergy and wizards have magic available to them—merely with a physical description of the four men in the diagram.
By their tonsures, the last two were monks also, but instead of habits, they wore black armor with their brass medallions.
I also want to give you a hint as to what’s different about this world in particular, so I have added the last two men, partnered to the monks in the diagram, and given you also a broad hint about their skill sets: the armor.
They stood away in the taller grass, watching, faces drawn and fearful in the hard radiance that came from the glassy, polished top of the stone.
Here’s another hint at the armored monks’ skills: they’re not spellcasters. And another about the nature of the ritual going on: that it’s frightening. Beyond that, I’ve told you more about the stone itself, and chosen words that add to the eldritch feeling: “hard radiance,” and “glassy” for euphony.
The tracery etched in the surface burned more brightly than a sunbeam glancing off the whitest snow.
More precise about the exact source of the light, and information about the nature of magic in the world: tracery and diagrams, different ways to tap the power. A simile, for pretty, and to fix a picture in the reader’s mind.
It looked almost as if it might be letters or runes, but from what language? What language, when written, would writhe so that when a man looked away, and then looked back upon it, it had changed?
Going into more detail here, but also, I’ve tried to impart the frightened questioning on the part of the armored monks. Something’s not right here, and this is not the way things usually go. I’m trying to create a mood here, so I’m giving you these details in a way that speaks to the mood.
The section I’ve gone into here is just under two hundred words, but the reader already knows a lot about the world he or she is in, and as well as giving information, I have tried to manipulate his or her feelings toward the scene with my choice of words, punctuation, and even sentence length. By ending the second paragraph with a question, I’ve tried to draw the reader on, deeper into the scene. By using some longer sentences with my shorter ones, I’ve tried to engage the part of the mind that is “hearing” me. This scene took many, many revisions, and I read it aloud to myself several times to make sure the rhythm sang. Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a long time—I spent several hours on just a few paragraphs.
Another one of the choices I made in communicating this scene was my choice of an impersonal, somewhat removed narrator. I did this for a number of reasons, the first being that I wanted to convey reader knowledge that the characters do not possess. I wanted to give the impression that we’re outside observers to a great event. There is no dialogue in this sequence. By that I mean—although later on one of the monks speaks—nobody responds. I wanted to create isolation and distance for the reader, and not to draw him or her too deeply into anyone’s mind just yet, partly because the answers to many of the questions the scene raises are the mysteries of Menyoral, and I didn’t want to ruin the story! (And if you want to read the rest of the excerpt, click here.)
You can leverage everything about your narration this way. Word choice, rhythm, punctuation (though that’s slightly less fluid), point of view/narrator, everything. Say you want to write a first-person story, or a very close third. Keep in mind who’s telling your story, and the cadences of his or her speech. Choose words the character would use, and connote how he or she would see things by your choices. Don’t tell me, “She didn’t like the wallpaper.” (Unless it’s in the rhythm. This is advice, not Do or Die.) Maybe she’s an interior designer. Say instead, “She stared around at the flocked, Harvest Gold wallpaper with a curl in her lip.” Maybe she’s in pest control. “That textured wallpaper could hide a swarm of tiny insects.”
I’m going on a little, so here’s the best thing you can do to help you achieve this kind of effect: learn great big piles of words. Read. Read outside your comfort zone and in it. Increase your vocabulary. Use your new words. Build sentences around great words. Snuggle into them. They’re not just your nuts and bolts: they’re the cells in the wood of your structure.