As we continue our conversation about pacing, which comes out of our conversation of writing fears, one of the questions raised was about the balance of dialogue and prose. How much dialogue is too much? How little is too little? And how do you know?!?
Every writer tips toward one or the other, too little dialogue or too much. (Note: I have zero scientific evidence for that statement, it's just an observation of mine after a couple years of judging for the Genesis contest and general critiquing.)
I always tip toward too much. This is something I wrestle with in the editing process rather than the first draft process. (If you're the type of writer who edits as you go, this will obviously be different for you.)
Here are the clues I look for that tell me I've used too much dialogue:
- I'm a couple paragraphs into the scene, only to be surprised my characters are in the cafeteria, not at the main character's house.
- After a page or two of dialogue, a character joins the conversation ... and I didn't even realize they were there.
- I have no mental picture of where these characters are.
This happens when I haven't done my job setting the scene, and/or because I have failed to provide sensory details.
What do I mean by setting the scene? Here's the way Betsy St. Amant opens a scene in Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK:
After the day I had, ice cream was a must. I stood in line at Screamin' Cones after school and wished Marta were there to share the fat grams and encouragement.
Or this one from Sarah Sundin's A Distant Melody:
Sheer curtains hung at the tall drawing room windows, limp from heat so still that Allie's breath provided the only movement of air.Allie sat at the grand piano to play after-dinner music for her parents and Baxter on the porch outside - every night the same.
Now does that mean you can't start a scene with dialogue? Of course not. But you don't want to let the dialogue go on too long before you drop in the setting details.
Here's another scene opening from A Distant Melody:
"I couldn't pick if I were her either," Daisy Galloway whispered, then stuffed more popcorn in her mouth. "Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire? Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire? They're both dreamy."
Allie shushed her - again.
And one from Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK:
"I heard you needed an artist, little lady."
I looked up from my clipboard of assignments as Luke swaggered across the production room toward me.See how they start with dialogue, but pause the conversation just long enough to help the reader get their bearings?
Once you've established the setting for the reader, sensory details are the tool you use to remind the reader (without them feeling like they're being reminded) of where they are. (Click here for more of an explanation of sensory details.)
Confession: When my scenes lack sensory details, it's because I haven't taken the time to think them through. So if you have a sneaking suspicion there's too much dialogue, take a moment to close your eyes and conjure up the scene in your head.
Where are your characters? (In their room? The forest? Walking through school grounds?)
Who else is there? (Other patrons of Starbucks? Classmates? No one?)
What's the lighting like? (Waning sunlight? Fluorescents? Early morning fog?)
What kind of ground are they on? (Crunchy leaves? Harsh concrete?)
What kind of smells linger in the air? (Fresh ground coffee? Hot dogs? Sweat?)
Does your character taste anything? (The food they're eating?)
If they're outside, what's the weather like?
And what kind of sounds are going on around them? (Birds chirping? School bells ringing?)
You don't have to incorporate every one of those into your scene. (In fact, I'm gonna say you shouldn't.) But you also don't want to just tell your readers that your character's are in their school cafeteria and leave it at that.
Another thing you want to make sure you're including is what is going on in your point of view (POV) character's head. Your readers want to feel like they're involved in the story, and now that they know where they are, they want to feel what your character is feeling during the conversation.
Here's an example of how Betsy St. Amant does this in Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK. I highlighted the character's feelings, just to drive home the point:
"Not a problem." Jessica flashed her pearly teeth, and I wondered not for the first time this year how often she Crest white-stripped.
And here's one from Sarah Sundin's A Distant Melody: (Walt is the POV character)
Grandpa shook his head. "Nope. Ray's a quiet soul. He's not cut out for the rough-and-tumble of combat like you and Jack."
Walt's shoulders felt straighter and broader. Grandpa thought he could handle combat.
Those glimpses into the POV character's head help knit your reader's heart into the story, because now they're not just seeing and hearing the conversation, they're feeling it as well.
Anybody have any additional tips or questions about dealing with a scene with too much dialogue?