Supporting Narration (Unabridged)

by Emma Sohan

One of my favorite authors does a lot of pure dialogue:
"What? Are you nuts? He wants to kill me."
"I'll take precautions."
"Such as?"
"I'll be watching."
"And I'll catch him before he kills you."
"How are you going to catch him?"
"I'll rush him," I said. "And give him a faceful of pepper spray."
"I'm not comfortable with that."
(Top Secret Twenty-One, Janet Evanovich, page 88)
The dialogue continues for a while like that. It's as if someone was writing down everything that was said and occasionally telling us who is speaking.

I sometimes do long sections of pure dialogue. A lot of authors do. There's definitely an art to doing it well. But . . .

That's just one choice. And it's limiting.

Avoding supporting narration is sometimes given as a goal for every writer. But there's no reason for this goal. A writer should be trying to use ALL of her tools as effectively as possible. Also, pure dialogue might not be a choice you want to make if you have to distort your dialogue or characters to achieve this goal or limit what you say.

"Normal" Supporting Narration

Most authors don't like long stretches of dialogue, so they break it up with narration. (If they interweave narration of the story into the dialogue, that narration isn't supporting the dialogue.)

Traditional supporting narration can be useful in several ways.

Irrelevant Facts. Sometimes authors add something irrelevant about what the characters are doing or experiencing.

Ryan took another sip of his champagne. "Cold and dark, I'm afraid." (The Cardinal of the Kremlin)
"Why did he say that?" I look up and my father's talking to me. I'm so surprised I choke on my Tandoori chicken.

These can function as an implicit dialogue tag, telling us who is speaking. In the first example, Ryan is talking.

They also help the reader picture what is happening -- IMO, just one detail goes a long way towards avoiding a dialogue in a visually empty space.

Apparently irrelevant details can also be worked into the story, but that is a different issue – and a lot more elegant.

"Do you think that we did the right thing waiting for him? Instead of trying to stop him sooner?" I'm stabbing too hard at one of the pieces of lettuce in my salad.

How Something is Spoken.

"No holes," Pokryshkin noted sourly.
"So what?" Bondarenko said in surprise. (The Cardinal of the Kremlin, page 112)
Curiously, the author's goal usually is not to tell us how something was spoken. The reader will probably not imagine Bondarenko speaking in a suprised way, since the instructions for that come after the dialogue. Instead, the point is only that he was surprised.

Another example:

"Major Gregory, all ready?" an Air Force lieutenant general asked. Jack noted his respectful tone. (The Cardinal of the Kremlin)

Nonverbal Body/Facial Movement. Finally, authors can show a character's facial expressions of body movements. Again, the point is to show emotions. This can be as simple as a smile, nod, or shrug.

Parks grinned for half a second. "Go ahead, we're not in that much of a hurry." (The Cardinal of the Kremlin, page 116)"

General Comments. To put these last two together, real life communication always includes the nonverbal cues (facial, body, or in speech), and the supporting narration allows the author to include these. Is there any difference between the following?

"Tell me," he said angrily.
"Tell me." He sounded angry.
"Tell me." He looked angry.
"Tell me." He was angry.
Not much – they all pretty much end up in the same place. In real life, you simply notice whether or not someone is angry; you rarely if ever pay attention to the clues you used to know that. (So, in first person present, saying he was angry is probably the most accurate depiction of the character's thoughts.)

So, being more general, one purpose of supporting narration is tell the reader what people are feeling.

"We'll think of something," Mom said distractedly. (King, Revival)

In a movie, the viewer hears how things are spoken, sees body movement, and gets rich details about the scene. Traditional supporting dialogue is basically enabling the author to do the same thing.

Here's an example of sparse supporting dialogue. The scene has already been described, the characters are starting their important discussion.

     "You're probably wondering why I'm here."
     Grant noddded. "It's a long way to come, Mr. Morris."
     "Well," Morris said, "to get right to the point, the EPA is concerned about the activities of the Hammond Foundation. You receive some funding from them"
     "Thirty thousand dollars a year," Grant said, nodding. "For the last five years."
     "What do you know about the foundation?" Morris said.
     Grant shrugged. "The Hannond Foundation is..." (Jurassic Park, page 27, Michael Crichton)
James Rollins usually has more supporting narration:
     "And you'll let me know?" Joan asked with a smile. "You know I've been following your discoveries in both the National Geographic and Archaeology magazines."
     "You have?" Henry stood a little straighter.
     "Yes, it's all been very exciting."
     Henry's smile grew wider. "I'll definitely keep you updated." And he meant it. [Regular Narration follows.] (Excavation)
Jurassic Park tends to be the ideas and events that are interesting. Rollins is trying to make everything exciting, including the dialogue.

Sharing the Stage: Rich Supporting Narration

Supporting narration could be anything. But, oddly enough, I find three categories of rich supporting narration.

Complex Emotions. Supporting narration can describe complicated emotions and feelings. It can also describe combinations of these.

     "What?" I say. "Do you think you have a monopoloy on spontaneity and adventure?"
     She raises her eyebrows, her face caught between emotions again: this time, amusement and mortification. (My Best Friend, Maybe)
     "Foolish woman!" responded the physician, half coldly, half soothingly.(The Scarlet Letter)
Even simple emotions can be difficult to express in any way other than saying them.
"Chinatown was great," Bosch said sarcastically. (The Last Coyote
Some of these are almost impossibly complex emotions and feelings. In an action book, an author might present as much action as possible, even sacrificing plausibility to that goal. This feels like the same thing, except it is an emotions book and the author is trying to put in emotions.
Erik lets air out of his mouth like a tire. Then he takes another deep breath and does the whole thing again. This is bad. Finally he says, "I want to break up. (Girls Don't Fly, page 14)
"I sure will." I was trying not to giggle before, but now I'm trying not to cry. (How to Be Bad)
I suddenly feel violently conspicuous. (Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me)
Thoughts. Supporting narration can also describe thoughts and feelings. This can be done in third person, though it is more natural in first person. (Up to now, everything was easily done in third person, as if a neutral observer was just reporting the scene.)

Why is the author presenting the character's thoughts in the narration instead of in the dialogue itself? Or, for that matter, why isn't the character either talking or listening instead of thinking? But in reality, people don't always say everything they think.

These thoughts could be anything, and if they aren't associated with the dialogue, they are regular narration. But there are two particular types of thoughts that fit in with dialogue.

What is Unsaid. When people talk, they don't always say everything they are thinking. (duh.)

This makes a second channel of communication. An excellent example, since you are here, is the dialogue pages of this website. Or:

"Are you okay?" he says. How could I be okay?(Girls Don't Fly)
This is so weird, I thought. Out loud, I said, "The thing is, I know that the modeling thing is really important to –" (Just Listen)
Meta-Dialogue. The supporting narration can contain comments about the dialogue. Meta-dialogue, if you want to call it that.

It's common – and for our purposes, boring – to use these to cover up potential bumps in the conversation, such as explaining why the character stopped talking or changed topic. For example:

"I wondered what that announcement was about. So, no boyfriend?"
Lying is a strategy for people who think all the time, not for people who turn it off and act impulsively. So I admit, with regret, "No boyfriend." (Emotions Girl)

It gets interesting when . . . well, there is an underlying structure to any discussion, hidden under the words. And it gets interesting when the author starts talking about that.

"I found a good car for you, really cheap," he announced when we were strapped in.
"What kind of car?" I was suspicious of the way he said "good car for you" as opposed to just "good car."(Twilight, page 6)
"Why do you need more space?" I know this is a pathetic question, by the way. (Girls Don't Fly, page 15)
"Gosh, I haven't visited Venice in years, so my Italian seems to have escaped me," she says, in what skips sarcasm and goes straight to nasty. (Being Sloane Jacobs)
"Okay, then," says Mel. "We have a strategy." She says it with a completely straight face, and at first Jesse and I think she's missed the entire joke, but then we realize that's cosmically impossible and bust out laughing again. (How to Be Bad, page 81)
So, a conversation could be a complicated, structured interaction, even though people might not notice this. And this meta-dialogue can be more important than the actual dialogue, so again the name supporting dialogue is misleaing. Here's another example of irony, used to show the narrator's attitude and what she thinks of her own comment.
So things are swirling around inside my head, and between us; I try to get them to slow down, but I can't. My mood goes up or down depending on whether he smiles at me or pays attention to me. Now he just blasted me.

But I'm getting one of those rare chances to see his emotion, and he's being vulnerable, and I don't understand why he even cares about this, or me, and . . . and he's right about everything he said. And -- really importantly -- he's not angry at me any more. "Okay," I say profoundly.

This irony helps bring the reader back into the story and explain her comment to the reader. Who uses irony in narration? It seems wrong in principal, and it probably puts a chink in the fourth wall. When I imagine a narrator being ironic, I imagine the narrator immediately clearing up that the statement was ironic. But it seems to have a role in supporting narration.

What about this?

Ranger pulled out of the restaurant lot, stopped for a light, and he hand went to my knee and travelled north.

"Um," I said.
This is formulaic for ironical supporting narration. I'm not saying something perfect can be found; the point is just to notice the clues that it might be useful.


"Tell me more," I asked desperately, not caring what he said, just so I could hear his voice again. (Twilight, page 187)
The following is the start of My Best Friend, Maybe. The book start is where the author puts her best foot forward, right? Her start is a line of dialogue, then supporting narration!
     "So, you wanna go?"
     That's how she asks me. Like she's talking about a party. Or a chick flick.
     I meet his eyes, and I summon every ounce of bravery I possess to the surface "I don't know what's happening here."
     He nods so subtly I only see it because I am currently hyperfocused on everything Cameron. "About earlier," he says. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable. I thought you were used to people seeing you. Looking at you. You told me that once, and I just thought . . ."
     "I'm not used to people looking at me like that," I say, pushing myself up on my elbows. It comes out accusing, but I don't mean it to.
     He winces, but he doesn't deny it. "I'm sorry, he says.
     God, it's impossble to say what I mean, to even put it into words. I feel like we're having a conversation with the things we don't say instead, and ...
     (Soulprint, Megan Miranda, page 218)
     "Geez, don't bite my head off." Now that I've stirred Vicks up, I wish I hadn't. I don't do so well with fighting, not the out-and-out kind where you actually say what you feel. I glace at Mel, but she's facing straight ahead and pretending she's not listening, like La la la, nobody here but me and my good buddy the windshield..
     "And babe?" Vicks continues. "For your info? My 'virginity,' as you so quaintly put it, was lost long long ago. So you can say good-bye to that little fantasy, 'kay?" She waves into the mirror. "Buh-bye! Sayonara! Adios!"
     Well, she doesn't have to be so sarcastic! My heart's all poundy, but I don't ...
     (How to Be Bad, pages 152-153

Last, a short story I wrote, Eyes in the Dark, tried to put a lot into the supporting narration.