Writers have tricks or “procedures,” often unrecognized, to create good fiction. Some you can objectively identify and help you talk about how the story is put together and how you feel about it. First, recognize that the words on the pages fall into 1 of 3 categories. You can even circle or highlight them. Nothing will be left over.

     (1) Dialogue  Characters are talking. What they say is enclosed in quotation marks.

     (2) Narration  The author is flat-out telling, or using a character to describe  things, for the reader.

     (3) Thoughts  The author shows the reader what one or more characters is thinking (but not speaking) about certain details of the story. This might “drive” or overshadow narrative detail.


For more use the DOOR.




The paragraphs below illustrate what I’ve just said. Dialogue is in red,  narration is in blue, and thoughts* are in green. These are taken from p. 32 of The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox.


…how often I’d observed someone who, offended as he was by an odor and proclaiming loudly how awful it was, continued to sniff away as though, in fact, he was smelling a rose.
     “That’s chloride of lime,” Ben said.
     “What’s that?” I asked**.
     “What we sprinkled in the hold after our last cargo of slaves was unloaded.”
     Ben put his foot on the latch. “To clear out the stench. But it never quite goes away.”
     I felt a thrill of fear as if a bottle of glass had crashed next to me, and the bits of glass were flying toward my face. I asked him nothing more.



[Remember: Narrative detail that’s “driven by a character’s thoughts” is often better classified as thoughtsinstead of straightforward narration (as are the 2 dialogue tags and other 2 examples in blue above). If the invisible author, had simply indicated that the (unnamed) “I” felt dizzy, confused, or sick to his stomach, it would be straightforward “thoughts.] 



(1)  In fiction, every word of text fits into one of the 3 categories.

(2)  There can be considerable variation as to how much goes into each category. In evaluating a story, however, what you sense as a strength or weakness in the story might be too much or too little of one of these 3 parts

(3)  Generally, dialogue is considered the most efficient, and most interesting, for the author to tell the reader what he wants him to know. (Plenty of exceptions, though.)  To beginning writers: Concentrate on pushing as many details as you can get away with into dialogue.  “I smell something dead, really dead!” said Mary. “I think it’s coming from one of the sloops tied down there at the pier.” (Note  all the details that ride along with the suspenseful dialogue.)

(4)  If the lips move, those words go into quotation marks. Unspoken thoughts don’t. Thoughts are sometimes written in italics–but don’t push it.

(5)  It’s not hard to recognize, and create, good technical style, but to have a memorable story, something that matters has to be said.

(6)  If you prefer to spell “dialog” this way, it’s OK.


* Discussion of ways to present “thoughts” is fascinating, can be almost objectively done and will be taken up in a future post.

** The tag I asked is not in the original, though it could be. I added those two words to emphasize that dialogue tags are part of narration.

[♠] This is an excellent way to begin, just begin, discussion of a story, seeing how it’s put together and how well the different parts work.  And, it appeals to many who are book-shy. It has an “it’s-there-or-it’s-not” test that can be easily done. The only really debatable part is the extent that thoughts “drive” the narrative part. Nothing to worry about. It makes no difference. You’re looking closely at the text and that’s what really matters.