Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The fear of too much dialogue

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:

  1. 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.
  2. After a page or two of dialogue, a character joins the conversation ... and I didn't even realize they were there.
  3. 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. 
"Okay, boy..."

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?


  1. I have a question! :D Instead of struggling with too much dialogue, I fear I insert too much sensory detail and main character inner thought. How do I avoid telling too much?

    And I have another question. I have this once scene in my current WIP where the MC and her new best friend are in the school hallway. Everyone's going to their classes, so the hall is growing silent. It's a dialogue scene where they are joking around. MC makes a witty statement and her friend comes back with something else. While doing so they are slowly walking away from each other toward their own classes. I feel that the dialogue is too much, but if I add sensory details that it will ruin the quick machine gun quipping of the two friends. Do you have any tips for a nice balance for this particular situation?

    This is a great post! :D It really got me thinking. Thank you so much. <3

    1. Some scenes of rapid fire dialogue can work great, so it really just depends on how long you have it carrying on for. 10 lines? 5? Rapid fire for a short time at the end of a scene, when a lot of the other details have already been established can work really well. How many lines of dialogue is it?

    2. It's 8 lines. It starts off normal, then 4 lines of true rapid fireness, then finishes up with three normalish lines. I hope that makes sense.

    3. Again, I can't say for sure since I haven't read it, but that sounds like a fine length for an exchange like that. My guess is it's fine balance wise.

    4. Okay :D Thank you for your time and patience.

  2. I have this problem, Stephanie. There can be whole scenes in my book like this:

    Sarah walked down the street, and Josh came rushing over.
    "Where are you going?"
    "Home," said Sarah.
    "Mind if I walk you there?"

    My mentally when I write is: Finish the book, worry about details later. I think the only time I included lots of sensory details was during nanowrimo, lol

    I'll be saving this post for when I edit. :)

    1. Allison, my first drafts are very similar!

    2. Do you read descriptions often or skip them? I'm wondering if that might be why I have so few sensory details-I can skip a lot of description while reading, but I always read the dialogue.
      Hm, maybe that is how I can improve my descriptions... :)

  3. I'm the type of writer that edits as I go... and I tend to add too much description and not enough dialogue. I'm so worried that I haven't set the stage well enough that I feel the need to go on and on...only to read it later and see how the last three paragraphs are overkill. :P I keep trying to work on incorporating enough dialogue but still set the scene, it's a balance that I have to keep working on. Thanks for this post! By the way, A Distant Melody is one of my favs. Soooo good. I've been wanting to read Besty's book too, because I really like the character's voice.

  4. I think dialogue is probably the only thing I don't have a problem with, as far as putting too much. I might put too little, or it might be a little stilted, but I tend to have too much description. Oh, and I do tend to like starting scenes with dialogue. That's my version of "arrive late, leave early." Because if someone is speaking, than obviously something is happening. Good post for me to think about though. Thank you, Stephanie! ^_^

  5. FYI, I'm going to do a "too little dialogue" post as well. Should've mentioned that in my post...

  6. My trouble us more of the weak dialogue that does not go anywhere. I add enough details, too much probably. I just have trouble with making the dialogue seem natural.

  7. This was mentioned a bit in the too little dialogue, but one thing I've been taught and found very helpful is that dialogue should always be driving the story. There should always be some kind of tension in the dialogue (though it doesn't always have to be obvious).

    If you have too much dialogue (which I do fairly often!), just read through, find where the dialogue isn't advancing the story, and cut it. It takes some reworking to make the areas around the cut dialogue to make it read right, but I usually think it's worth it in the end.

  8. Hi Stephanie! Google Alerts sent me here :) I have to laugh because "too much dialogue" is my tendency also. When I write my notes for a scene, it's ALL dialogue! Then in the rough draft I fill in all the other boring stuff - and of course, then I like it better because the sensory details and emotional info illuminates what the POV character is really feeling.

    Now I have to pick up Betsy's book - it sounds really cute!

    1. I bet Anna would love it :) Thanks so much for stopping by, Sarah!

  9. Wow, these are fantastic! I'm not sure where I fall, too much dialogue or too little...but I do know that I usually try to keep the reader up-to-date with where the characters are, what's going on, etc. I usually have a picture of the scene in my head as I write, and I find it's hard for me to continue when a part of the scene is missing. Thanks for these tips, though; I'll really have to make sure that I include enough sensory details, because the examples you included were great! Can't wait till I'm that good, haha. :)

    1. Sensory details are one of the hardest things for me too! Fortunately, as far as edits go, it's a pretty quick fix.