Too Much Dialogue

Today’s News: Read an interview I did with An Innovative Pursuit here about writing, Grey Areas, and upcoming The Bleeding Crowd.

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Another topic courtesy of the NaNoWriMo forums: How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a novel/short story?

For anyone who’s read my work, you’re probably assuming that my answer is “there’s never too much dialogue.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am a huge fan of dialogue. In fact, regarding my last short story published (“Frankincense” for those of you who don’t want to pop over to my biography), the acceptance letter for the anthology literally started:

” Well…normally when I read a manuscript that consists of 95% dialogue, I stop reading after about two pages and prepare a decline letter.  Yours, however, kept me reading…which is what a good story should do.”

She went on to compare it to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so I’ll take it overall as a compliment, but you know you write a lot of dialogue when someone accepting your work feels the need to point out that it’s nearly all dialogue (personally, I think 95% is overestimating, but still…)

Every author I know has a different take on dialogue. Personally, I find it the most interesting (and generally easiest) thing to write. Many people find it the hardest  (I’ve more than once heard people complaining about how poorly they do dialogue). Editing, I can see that. For some people, dialogue comes naturally. For some it sounds stilted and unnatural. Based on our skills/preferences, it’s completely understandable (at least to me) that we each lean one way or another. We write more dialogue or more narrative.

More and more, though, I hear people talking about being worried they’re using too much/not enough dialogue in their writing. For example, this post in the NaNoWriMo Forums this morning:

So my novel is 75000 words and pretty much done.  Problem is, the last 1/3 is alot of dialogue…I dont think I can cut much of it without losing the vital information it posesses.  Is there something I can do to fix this problem?  I am trying to add alot of movement between words and descriptives to break it up but I still find myself worrying…HELP.

And on the other side:

Do you think it’s either bad style or very off-putting to readers if there are whole pages (or 2 or 3 pages at a time) with no dialogue? I often find I’m following events involving one person on their own, and I realise it’s been three pages since anyone actually SAID anything.”

Now, I admit I’ve been trying to put a little more narrative into my writing, but then, personally I don’t like reading too much narrative, so I probably (read: definitely) still lean on the dialogue-heavy side.

So, when should you worry that you have too much dialogue (or too much narrative)? Or should you even worry?

Based on the odd compliment for Frankincense, it seems too much dialogue could hurt you when it comes to submitting your work. Though I never had a problem with a ton of dialogue in submissions (it would be a bit hypocritical to…) I’m sure others in acquisitions and agents might dislike it. While that can come from just about any part of your writing style (it’s why you should expect those rejects I was talking about in yesterday’s post) you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the reject pile before the agent/publisher of your choice has actually had a chance to look at your work.

So, like everything else when it comes to writing, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue tends to move more quickly due to its quick back and forth nature. It’s simple to explain things without taking too much time and losing the reader’s attention

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative moves slowly (or more slowly than dialogue) and gives you a chance to really dig in to important things. People don’t tend to get into long intricate explanations (unless they’re Bond villains) and thus you can do things with narrative that will sound awkward in dialogue.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue gives you a chance to develop multiple characters at once. One of the quickest ways to tell who someone is is to hear them talk. What kind of grammar does the character use? What words? Is he/she polite or swear like a sailor? A couple of lines and people can tell a ton without long-winded paragraphs about your character’s back story.

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative gives you a chance to see the world through your POV (Point of View) Character’s eyes. Of course this doesn’t work so well in omniscient third person, but as that style hasn’t been popular in the better part of a century, generally you’re relating the story, or at least each scene, through one character. This is especially true in first person. Dialogue has to be more truthful than narrative. You write what is said. How your POV character interprets things, however, shows up in narrative. Are they the type to take every little thing as sarcasm? Do they think the way their boss just winced means they’re getting fired? You can show how they react much better with narrative.

Dialogue Con:

It’s easy to get into “As you know, Bob” situations with dialogue. For those of you who don’t know/don’t want to risk the time black-hole that is TV Tropes, “As you know, Bob” is a term that describes those awkward bits of a dialogue where it’s obviously the author trying to get information in the reader needs to know, but what the characters would never be talking about, since they both know what’s going on. For example:

“How is Cathy, your sister, doing?”
“Just fine. As you know, she fell off a building lately, but fell on a circus tent and thus didn’t get as hurt as she could have.”

1) Why would the first speaker need to clarify that Cathy is the second’s sister? The second speaker knows that. And 2) Why would the second speaker need to explain something that the first speaker already knows (Cathy’s fall)? It’s awkward and could be taken care of with a line of narrative along the lines of “It had been three weeks since his sister, Cathy’s fall…”

Narrative Con:

It’s much easier to fall into “laundry lists” with narrative. For example:

“Tim and Nancy went to the store. It took about 15 minutes. They walked up and down the aisles. They found milk. Then they checked out…”

Now, part of that example’s problem is the repetitive sentence structure and what not, but hopefully you see where I’m going. There’s no need give a play-by-play account of what’s happening, but it’s so easy to do when writing narrative. Unless one of your characters is supposed to be long-winded and boring, it will just feel awkward for something along the lines of:

“How was your day?”
“Well, I went to the store. It took me about 15 minutes to get there. Then I walked through all the aisles…”

And the list goes on and on. Will I keep trying to add narrative to my writing? Sure. But I’m not going to worry about the proper ratio for it. At least in my opinion, the genre of your novel and the situation of each scene is going to dictate how much narrative is needed just as much as my preference for dialogue. Rather than worrying about a ratio, or if people aren’t going to be happy with this much narrative or that much dialogue, weigh the pros and cons of each for what you want to happen in the scene. After all, if Frankincense is any indication, good writing will come out above any ratio of dialogue to narrative. It’s just about getting it to be good.

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7 thoughts on “Too Much Dialogue

  1. B. Tinsley says:

    Awesome post. Whether I’m reading or writing, I love dialogue and character interaction. If I’m reading something with too much narrative, I start skipping paragraphs. I worry though, like the above-mentioned poster to the Nano forums, about using too much dialogue.

    I needed to read this post – I’ve been having trouble with this in my current story, so I’m glad I came across this. It’s always good to hear that other writers love dialogue as much as I do, and have been published for it as well! =)

    ~B

    • Jessica Dall says:

      I’m glad to have helped. Dialogue has always been the easiest for me to write, so it was never a second thought about how much dialogue I used. But as with most writing, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

  2. Allyson Marrs says:

    I’ve found that big chunks of narrative usually work better/make more sense in first person POV. Easiest examples to point to would be the Twilight series and The Hunger Games series. Since he/she is telling the story, she can do just that without talking to everyone around her. Instead, she’s observing and recounting, in a way. Both those series depend heavily on narrative over dialogue, but when books are in third person, I, too like dialogue. The best reason you mentioned is because it more quickly shows a character’s personality, so the author doesn’t have to simple say “She’s crude and outspoken.” Dialogue instead shows it.

    Great post.

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