Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Looking for a topic for an article, I asked some writer friends what topics they’d enjoy. One mentioned dialogue; he wanted to know how a writer could know when there was too much dialogue in a story.
A question both tricky and simple.
We all know that novels tell stories and that to tell those stories, writers use people, events, and location—the character, action, and setting of fiction.
Characters need to communicate with one another, so that’s where dialogue comes in. Yet dialogue can be part of story events, so dialogue can also be considered an element of action. When characters speak, something is happening. And the plot should be progressing. And conflict is probably escalating.
We need to hear our characters speak and other characters need to hear them as well. Dialogue is one very easy way to reveal a character’s personality, to establish a character as a certain type of individual.
Dialogue can also be used as a way to cover a lot of ground in a story. Two characters who go at it through conversation can reveal back story, can shoot conflict high, can tell us something about themselves and about other characters, and spew out goals and motivation, their reasons for pursuing whatever it is you’ve got them pursuing in their story.
But dialogue is only one element of fiction that can accomplish these necessary story tasks. Yes, dialogue has its place. But it shouldn’t take over a story.
You never want readers saying, Enough talk! Get on with the story already.
You can make them anxious to move forward, set them on edge with your writing style; you don’t want them angry enough that they’ll toss your book across the room.
So, how much dialogue is too much? To decide, consider the moment, the scene, and the full story. Understand your tale and know what you hope to accomplish with it.
Genre and style conventions
Some genres may allow for, or encourage, more dialogue than others. A wise-talking detective in a murder mystery needs the opportunity to talk wise. The protagonist in a literary coming-of-age novel might not have that same need to talk to others all the time, especially in a first-person narrative where readers have direct insight into the character’s mind and emotions.
Know your genre and the style of your story. Use both to guide your choice concerning the proper amount of dialogue.
Some characters, like 3-D people, simply talk more than others; some don’t talk much at all. Know your characters. Know when a well-timed barrage from a man of few words will rock your story world. Know, too, when silence from a garrulous man will leave other characters and your readers gasping. Write dialogue that fits your characters. And know when and how to write against character type.
Needs of the scene
Have you just written a couple of fast-moving action scenes with little dialogue? Perhaps it’s time to slow the pace, let your main characters ponder what they’ve learned, share details of their day over a long dinner. You may need to deliberately add a scene heavy with dialogue to counter the weight of several scenes with almost all action.
But if your scenes have been all talk and no action, it’s probably time to introduce an action event or two.
A scene doesn’t have to be all action or all dialogue—although it could be—so consider adding action to a scene of unrelenting talk. That is, you can alternate between scenes of nearly all action or all dialogue or you can weave sections of both into your scenes, so that the balance is nearly even for a series of scenes.
Characters who don’t shut up are just as annoying as real people who don’t. And readers have little incentive to keep listening when there’s no payoff. Keep readers interested by your choices; don’t run them off.
When it’s time to up the conflict, dialogue can be your tool of choice. Put a couple of characters together, have one tick the other off, and your story conflict is ramped up to the next level. Such dialogue can last a few lines or a couple of pages. What amount of dialogue would suit the story moment? Which, shorter sections or longer, would have a greater impact? Which fits the characters better? Which would be more surprising for the reader?
Remember to follow up conflict from dialogue with a character response.
If characters only talk, if they don’t respond to the conflict with action, then that conflict isn’t accomplishing as much as it could. Be sure that something arises out of conflict. If characters talk but nothing happens as a result, readers will lose interest. Why follow a couple of talkers if that talking leads nowhere, if nothing of note happens as a result of their conversations?
Variety and balance
A story that’s all talk doesn’t make for an engrossing tale, so consider variety and balance as you write scenes with dialogue. Readers will quickly tire of a story that’s all talk or all action or all description or all exposition. While one story may quite easily lean toward more action and another toward more dialogue, each should have variety and some kind of balance among the story elements.
Have there been stories of nearly all dialogue? Of course. Could you try such an experiment for your story? Again, of course. Yet always keep in mind your readers. You might want to see if you could construct a decent story using almost all dialogue—and doing so might be a marvelous writing exercise—yet you can’t blame readers if they don’t lust after your book. Some readers will enjoy the novelty and skill of such a story. Other readers will have no trouble telling you that a story of all dialogue is no story at all.
Weave dialogue in with your action and exposition and description. Give readers a rich mix of elements, a mix that will keep them both involved with your characters and unsure of what’s coming next.
Predictability can bore readers. So can the same element repeated again and again. As too much action at a high level can inure readers to excitement, too much dialogue can have them flipping ahead, searching for action, craving something different.
Themes, preaching, and pet causes
Unless the sole purpose of your story is to convince others of a particular point of view about a topic or belief (a practice not in favor with modern readers), keep your characters from preaching, from speaking about their own beliefs without challenge, about always being right about everything they say.
Today’s readers aren’t keen about being preached at or having points hammered home by fictional characters. Yes, you can share messages. But those messages should fit your character and the story and not be merely your favorite theory in the mouth of a character. Think subtlety if you want to make a point or highlight a theme, especially those not universally accepted. (And what is universally accepted?)
Also, people don’t let other people speak without interruption, and your characters shouldn’t let other characters get away with hogging conversations either. Make characters interrupt and talk across one another. And cut excess words. Get to the meat of communication in dialogue rather than letting characters speak with perfect grammar and diction and with an elegance found only at a White House dinner.
Hints that you have too much dialogue and helpful fixes—
~ Your scenes feature talking heads. This means two or more characters are talking but you’ve neglected to sketch in their location. They don’t interact with the props of their setting or move around in that setting. You might not have revealed the setting at all and might just as well have propped two heads in space and set them to talking.
Fix—Describe setting and make sure characters interact with it as they talk. Use the setting to make dialogue even more intense and conflict heavy. Even if a character is confined to one spot, give her body movements to break up dialogue and to show readers a person, not a machine or disembodied head, is speaking.
~ You or your beta readers are bored with all the talk.
Fix—Cut back the dialogue in a scene; add action in the middle of dialogue; go longer between scenes of dialogue; vary the amount of dialogue from scene to scene.
~ The pace is too fast or too slow. Pacing issues can arise from many factors in fiction, yet a story that races along may have too much dialogue. Remember that dialogue allows more white space on a page and pages with a lot of white space read faster than text-rich pages.
Too much dialogue without relief, however, can slow a story. All talk can take readers out of the fiction, make them want and look for something different. The story then begins to drag. Once you’ve lost the reader’s attention, you’ve got to do something—something different—to regain it.
Fix—See if the pacing issue is indeed a result of too much dialogue. Add exposition or action, or cut dialogue.
~ Characters talk too much about the past at the expense of current action and events. If your characters spend their time going over back story or telling one another what they already know (you know, Bob), then you’ve probably got too much dialogue.
Fix—Use flashbacks for variety if you absolutely must give readers more than a little back story. That is, dialogue is just one option for revealing back story. If you’ve got a lot of revelation to cover, consider other options as well.
~ The manuscript is over 150,000 words and you haven’t reached the story’s mid-point yet. If characters are sharing every moment of their lives—whether or not those moments have anything to do with the present story—they’re talking too much.
Fix—Keep to this story’s plot. Realize that readers don’t need to know everything—don’t want to know everything—about a character to enjoy the trouble you’ve currently dumped that character into.
Get to the point. Keep to the point.
We all know people who talk a lot. Sometimes what they have to say is fascinating. Sometimes their words are drivel.
As writers, we can use this knowledge to our advantage. We can play up our characters’ speech, giving them a forum to showcase their words, a platform that reveals their personalities and insecurities and strengths.
Yet dialogue is only one component of successful stories. And we can’t allow story conversations to take over and crowd out the other necessary components.
We wouldn’t use the same word 90,000 times and call the resulting manuscript a story. Nor should we overburden our tales with too much of any one element, dialogue included.
Dialogue has its place. Make sure it takes that place clearly and cleanly, leaving room for the other vital elements of fiction.