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How much is too much dialogue? (1 Viewer)

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
I've recently completed a novella in which I needed to take up three or four full scenes with dialogue in order the move the plot ahead. I normally show
instead of tell, but without the massive dialogue, it wasn't possible to fully convey to the reader what was going on. I don't mind a bit of dialogue, but
this was a lot for me to add in.

How much dialogue is too much? Do any of you sometimes use more dialogue that you normally would? Just curious to see how many other writers
that try not to load a story with dialogue end up having to in certain situations.

-JJB
 
If the dialogue feels clunky and forced, then there's way to much, cut it down. If it flows naturally and progresses the story than there is technically no proper ratio of dialogue to narration you have to maintain.

I normally show
instead of tell, but without the massive dialogue, it wasn't possible to fully convey to the reader what was going on. I don't mind a bit of dialogue, but
this was a lot for me to add in.

This makes it sound like the dialogue is all exposition, which can be boring and tedious to get through and is usually advised to be kept brief. I would read it out loud and if that is the case it may be wise to pare it down or break it up a bit.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I am a big fan of dialogue, so no need to skimp. But not a fan of conversations used to fill in backstory, that don't sound natural. For example, the killer holding a witness by gunpoint and telling them the whole reason for doing what they did...just before they kill them, as a resolution for all the foreshadowing planted earlier. Or a character reciting their bio for the purpose of filling in the reader.

For me, I ask, is this something that I would hear in real life? If not, then maybe there needs to be another way to convey the message.
 
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JJBuchholz

Senior Member
The dialogue in question is used to convey details and fill in some of the blanks of the plot from the characters' points of
view. I decided to go this route so that the reader can relate more to the characters as the story progresses. Normally, I
prefer more of a narrative, but this time I increased the dialogue.

Yes, I did read most of it back and went over it a couple times :)

-JJB
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Dialogue communicates a lot about the character’s personality as well. Action beats within dialogue provides subtext to the relationships and emotions going on.

eta: dialogue is just another tool we use to tell our stories. Any tool can be over used, but if it fits, it works.
 
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Travalgar

Senior Member
Avoid coming off like a bad comic recap. There's a myriad of paths to give backstories other than having characters talk about it:
1. Have your character read about it somewhere.
2. Have an omniscient narrator directly tell the readers.
3. Do flashback scenes (especially if the backstory is important for the readers but not for the characters).
I personally don't mind reading several pages of dialogues. But speeches containing nothing but exposition and backstories gets dull quick, since it usually takes away the emotion and personality of the speaker in order to convey factual information effectively.
 

MommaKat

Senior Member
I use a decent amount of dialogue in my novel writing, not so much the vignettes I write (usually those are about characters I run into at work)
It just depends on the writing, the point trying to be conveyed, etc.
I have an entire introduction where the entire dialogue is four words, (actually would love someone to crit it, but not sure where/how that is done)
 

Lawless

Senior Member
I would have never thought too much dialogue was even possible if someone hadn't said that in a discussion a few years ago. I've yet to see one book where it actually happens. (I mean, too much dialogue in a book on the whole.)

Every now and then, I find myself annoyed by long narratives that make me wish I could have been there to suggest to the author that they should have let the characters talk about it. Especially annoying are ideological rants. When the characters express strong opinions, it's fine. After all, they're entitled to (as well as supposed to have) their own opinions. But an author forcing their political preferences on the reader as the narrator is pathetic.

That was a case of too little dialogue. A case of (possibly) too much dialogue is, as Taylor already pointed out, backstories. Some authors let a more or less randomly chosen character tell a lot of backstory in a long speech which is not realistic. Oftentimes, backstory is better told by the narrator. However, IMHO, it can still be done as conversation. Instead of a monologue, let one character ask a question to give another character an excuse to tell some backstory, then let the first (or the third or fourth) character cut in occasionally with questions or objections, so that the backstory ends up in chewable chunks and the conversation will sound natural. Or, say, A tells some of the backstory to B, then B misunderstands something and C joins in, explaining it to B. That can be more interesting to the reader than having things told by the narrator.

Then again, there are many cases when backstory works better as narrator's text. Little point making it a conversation just for conversation's sake.
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
How much dialogue is too much? Do any of you sometimes use more dialogue that you normally would? Just curious to see how many other writers
that try not to load a story with dialogue end up having to in certain situations.

Good question. For myself, I find that the style in which I am telling the story helps determine how much dialogue to use or not to use. If I'm edging more towards literary, then less dialogue. Or when writing in a more popular style, then more dialogue.

I've noticed that dialogue speeds up the pacing of a scene, tends to add white space, and communicates immediate emotional responses more clearly. Narrative, on the other hand, seems to slow down the pacing, seems to lend itself more to establishing a sort of mood better than does dialogue, but can become kind-of thick to read through if not done well. I find I like to launch scenes with dialogue and then dial it back with narrative to achieve more depth from the scene than I can show just through conversation.

In looking for a balance between the two, it sounds like you're asking where this balance point is, or how do you know when too much/too little is in use. Here's an idea that might help you assess where you're at with it. Consider your piece as a whole and look for consistency. Ask, are you making a break from the way you've handled the story previously, up to this point? That could be a flag for a reader that you as the author hit a storytelling snag. What is different about the story at this point than at previous points that brought about this change in style/pacing/voice? Has there been a change in how you're handling characterization, or does--say, Fred--always seem to provide extra insight and so maybe this additional information might still fit with what Fred has talked about previously? As long as the dialogue patch seems organic and fits consistently with the whole, you could be okay. And if not, would it make better story sense to insert some of this information earlier in the story, so it doesn't come off as a data dump?

Just some ideas that have helped me. Personally, I'm pretty bad at committing data dumps. These are some ways of thinking about story in general that have helped me from falling into that sort of story pothole. Hope it goes well for you!
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
My first reaction was 'I don't see why you couldn't write a book that was just dialogue, that might be a challenge!' Then I started to read the comments and realised how bad that could be if it was misused and unnatural, still think it could be done and would be interesting if done well.
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
My first reaction was 'I don't see why you couldn't write a book that was just dialogue, that might be a challenge!' Then I started to read the comments and realised how bad that could be if it was misused and unnatural, still think it could be done and would be interesting if done well.
Absolutely. What would you call a one-person play, narrated in the first person and delivered as an internal conversation before an audience? Like an extended soliloquy? I know I've heard about such a thing, although I don't know enough plays in general to say much more about it.
 

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
I think dialogue becomes too much when it doesn't progress the story or it causes the pacing to drag. Using dialogue can be a good 'placeholder' to keep the story moving (if needed) but edited out later..
Usually, a bunch of back story/ info-dumping using dialogue gives an 'unnatural fee,l' I notice this primarily in movies lol
I like using a lot do dialogue but what percentage becomes too much? No idea
 
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SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
I am a big fan of dialogue, so no need to skimp. But not a fan of conversations used to fill in backstory, that don't sound natural. For example, the killer holding a witness by gunpoint and telling them the whole reason for doing what they did...just before they kill them, as a resolution for all the foreshadowing planted earlier. Or a character reciting their bio for the purpose of filling in the reader.

For me, I ask, is this something that I would hear in real life? If not, then maybe there needs to be another way to convey the message.
I agree with Taylor. When I am preparing for a dialogue, I just imagine having the conversation in real life, and it goes much smoother if there is a mutual exchange of information, not just one-sided to get the story moving. I've also found that making sure to use contractions keeps the chat from sounding too robotic. With that in mind, however, one thing I do find challenging is when there needs to be an empasis on a phrase that does not use a contraction. For example: "She did NOT help me today," reads much more critical than simply saying "she didn't help me today." The fomer shows emotion, maybe anger, whereas the latter just shares information. Well, this is kind of off-topic - sorry - but I like a lot dialogue myself and I think the more you use it, the better you get at revealing genuine conversations in your writing.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
Absolutely. What would you call a one-person play, narrated in the first person and delivered as an internal conversation before an audience? Like an extended soliloquy? I know I've heard about such a thing, although I don't know enough plays in general to say much more about it.
A little off subject, but I instantly thought of Alan Bennett's 'Talking Heads'. Alan Bennett is very English, but he is a truly great writer, and he uses this technique of first person soliloquy really well.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I wonder if I put too much dialogue in my stories too, but dialogue is showing (not telling) and is a heck of a lot better than:
1. Exposition given almost any other way.
2. Describing a character or relationship rather than letting us judge how they are/it is for ourselves. Dialogue gives you a way to show in the character’s own words.

I guess if dialogue becomes tiring or frustrating to readers it would be because:
1. You can’t tell who is saying what.
2. It isn’t relatable
3. Does not move the relationships or plot further. Or does not adequately illustrate what a character or relationship is like… or the dialogue illustrates it ad nosium. We want to know how a divorcing couple interacts but we don’t want to hear a long whole argument if it is repetitive and we don’t want to hear a repeat of the same argument even if going through the same trash is what the couple does. Alluding to the same argument a second time would be funny, though, because we will already be very familiar and we will be grateful to not have to deal with the whole thing.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I wonder if I put too much dialogue in my stories too, but dialogue is showing (not telling) and is a heck of a lot better than:
1. Exposition given almost any other way.
2. Describing a character or relationship rather than letting us judge how they are/it is for ourselves. Dialogue gives you a way to show in the character’s own words.

I guess if dialogue becomes tiring or frustrating to readers it would be because:
1. You can’t tell who is saying what.
2. It isn’t relatable
3. Does not move the relationships or plot further. Or does not adequately illustrate what a character or relationship is like… or the dialogue illustrates it ad nosium. We want to know how a divorcing couple interacts but we don’t want to hear a long whole argument if it is repetitive and we don’t want to hear a repeat of the same argument even if going through the same trash is what the couple does. Alluding to the same argument a second time would be funny, though, because we will already be very familiar and we will be grateful to not have to deal with the whole thing.
I somewhat disagree. Dialogue done right tells the reader a lot about the characters and their relationships, but doing it right takes skill - and I'm only now starting to get better at it. The more people in the conversation the more difficult it becomes to tell who is who without over using identifiers and overusing action beats - overuse = twitchy characters. It also moves the relationships and plot further, word choice and action beats communicates a lot about character emotions, relationships, and goals. It just takes a ton of practice to get it right.

I'm not there yet, but I'm getting better.
 

MommaKat

Senior Member
Currently I'm interspersing fairly long sections of dialogue in the book. I can't really edit well on the computer screen, so I am trying to get another chunk of writing done before I print, it's currently close to 80 single spaced double sided sheets...
 

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
I think I chose the extra dialogue route this time around more to have the characters tell more of the story from their
perspective, rather than me having to narrate large chunks. It's not normally something I would do, but I need to
experiment every so often and try new things.

I'm currently writing another short story that is more dependent on dialogue, but it goes hand in hand with the story
that is unfolding with the characters. I'm not going to go this route every time I write something, but it's working
in these two cases.

-JJB
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I somewhat disagree. Dialogue done right tells the reader a lot about the characters and their relationships, but doing it right takes skill - and I'm only now starting to get better at it. The more people in the conversation the more difficult it becomes to tell who is who without over using identifiers and overusing action beats - overuse = twitchy characters. It also moves the relationships and plot further, word choice and action beats communicates a lot about character emotions, relationships, and goals. It just takes a ton of practice to get it right.

I'm not there yet, but I'm getting better.
Which part did you disagree with?
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
I think dialogue becomes too much when it doesn't progress the story or it causes the pacing to drag. Using dialogue can be a good 'placeholder' to keep the story moving (if needed) but edited out later..
Usually, a bunch of back story/ info-dumping using dialogue gives an 'unnatural fee,l' I notice this primarily in movies lol
I like using a lot do dialogue but what percentage becomes too much? No idea
TV shows, too. Just in case you missed last week's episode, in a rerun series we're watching there's often a 'catch-up' conversation to bring the viewer back into step with the current drama. It does feel artificial, but hey, now you're caught up! I think brevity must be the name of the game for back story dialogue.
 
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