If I put a trophy on top of a table, what do you think I want you to see, the trophy or the table? Of course it’s the trophy. We can look at narration and dialogue the same way. Narration is the table and dialogue is the trophy. The narration is only there to set up the dialogue, which is what we really want to see (or hear).
It’s okay to dress up the table a bit to make the trophy even more attractive, but it’s ultimately the trophy that we should see.
The Heart of the Story
Dialogue is the heart of any story. It pumps life into the story. It also brings immediacy to the story, which means it brings us audience members into the present moment where we can witness the story unfold as if it is truly happening now. We can hear the dialogue just like the characters first heard it and we can experience it for ourselves.
Are you Giving a Report?
Too many speakers use far too much narration. For example, they say lines like, “My wife came home and told me she wanted a divorce.” That’s narration…a report from the past. Dialogue would sound like this, “I want a divorce.” That’s much more powerful because the audience can feel it in the present moment. However, an effective mix of narration would sound like this, “My wife came home, looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘I want a divorce.’”
Do you see how narration and dialogue should work together? The narration was, “My wife came home, looked me directly in the eyes and said…” while the dialogue was, “I want a divorce.” The narration (table) sets up the dialogue (trophy) very well. What we end up remembering is the dialogue.
Example of Narration and Dialogue Working Together
Listen to this 3 ½ minute story and see if you can pick up on the mix of narration and dialogue. The narration should help describe what’s happening in-between the lines of dialogue.
What happens when a speaker uses all dialogue without any narration? It comes off like a stage-play.
What happens when a speaker uses all narration and no dialogue? That’s when you have a news report.
The key is in the mix. We need a few, “He said…” and “She looked at me and said…” lines of narration to set up the dialogue so that it’s more conversational and natural.
Therefore, there is no Dialogue vs. Narration argument. Instead of being opponents, they should be teammates. They should work together to create powerful messages that stick and shine.
Can you give some examples of using narration to set up the powerful dialogue?
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