Friday, March 9, 2012

Q&A: What if my scene has too little dialogue?

On Wednesday we talked about how to balance out a scene that has too much dialogue, which of course begged the question, "What about a scene that has too little?"

Just like in life, there's certainly a time and place in your story where it's fine to not have much dialogue. There are a couple of dangers lurking in those non-chatty scenes that you should be aware of:

Too Much Introspection

Any scene that involves your character sitting alone, drinking chai tea, contemplating the meaning of life should instantly be cut. Or you should follow the advice of writer Erle Stanley Gardner and have someone walk in with a gun. Your choice.

I know J.D. Salinger did just fine with The Catcher in the Rye, but as a general rule, broody main characters do not work well because they don't do very much.

Description Bogs

Are you lacking dialogue because you've spent three paragraphs detailing the room your character is in? I notice this happening most often in historical, sci-fi, and fantasy manuscripts because of how unique and important the storyworld is to the action. I know it's tempting and you want your reader to experience everything to the full capacity, but you can't sacrifice forward motion.


Rachel Hauck said something in a class once that I just loved. She said, "tell the story between the quotes." Which I take to mean that the dialogue should be progressing your story. 

Try thinking of it this way: In a movie, there are no "asides." The actors can't pause their dialogue and explain things to the viewer:

"I never loved you, Robert!" The actress turns to the camera and whispers to the viewer, "Don't feel too sad; my character is being untruthful."
Because when you clutter up scenes in your novel with asides like that, that's what you may as well be doing. You're sucking out the tension! Your reader has opened your book hoping to be tortured. It's weird, but true. We want the suspense. We want to be biting our nails, thinking, "Does she love him? It seems like she did, but look at how she's acting!" I mean, where's the fun in it if we're not suffering?

So close your eyes and imagine your scene as a movie where you can't simply explain your concept or explain emotions. You must communicate them through the dialogue of the actors.

As a novelist, you obviously don't have the luxury that film makers do of just being able to show the setting, and those descriptions are vital to your story, but this can be a good exercise to push you toward creative dialogue.

So you've come across a scene full of brooding and descriptions and explanations. You think there should be more dialogue. What should you do?

Make your character's talk! You're in charge!

I'm not talking about filler conversations (How are you, Bob? Fine, Susie, how are you? Oh, I'm doing fine...) I'm talking about conflict-ridden dialogue that advances the story.

You do this by giving your characters something to talk about.

  • They can be talking about the plan - what should be do next? but what if the bad guys do this?
  • Or their feelings  - you really hurt me when you made this choice.
  • Or what's happening right then - why is Fido sniffing around the garden like that?

Or other things I'm probably forgetting. If they don't have anything interesting to talk about, that's a different problem relating to character development.

Also, don't leave your character alone too long. There's a time and place to ignore this suggestion, I'm sure. I was kinda shocked in the Twilight Saga when Stephenie Meyer chose to write out (what felt like) all 3 days of Bella's transformation. I thought it really dragged, and I'm not just saying that because Jacob rules.

Hopefully this makes sense. Honestly, it was kind of a tough post to write because I tend to have too much dialogue in my first drafts. If anyone has other suggestions for editing scenes with too little dialogue, please leave a comment!

Have a great weekend, guys!

Other posts you might find helpful:

A checklist for editing dialogue
Tips for improving your dialogue
Characters' internal and external motivations
Developing Secondary Characters
Developing Antagonists


  1. Thanks for a great post, Stephanie! I really love the Rachel Huack quote. And it's always good to be reminded to show not tell. I think dialog is one of the only areas where I'm always really worried of the reader will 'get' it or not.
    ~Sarah F.

  2. Great post! When I'm editing my novel, sometimes I even cut out unnecessary words and description and add a bit more dialog to move things along. I never completely got 'show don't tell' till now, but what if all that means is to not overdo on the description?

  3. I have a hard time making dialogue seem natural. It can be difficult to have smooth, flowing lines. Sometes they are just so stilted, unnatural, irregular.

    Thank you!!

  4. Whenever I'm stuck for dialogue and need it to be natural, I think of a goal. I want my characters to get "here" and I want the reader to learn "this". What I then do is I share that with a friend of mine and I give them a character to be and then we talk back and forth like we're the characters. Sometimes it really works! :D It doesn't go completely smooth, so I just sift through what we said and write that down. That also helps me with voice, because my friends say things differently then I would.

    1. That sounds like a great idea! Sounds like fun, too. My friends will love choosing characters to be :)

    2. ooh, that's a great idea!

  5. Oh, that actress aside quote is amazing. Exactly! That nail-biting tension is what makes some of my favorite books my favorites! :)

  6. "Any scene that involves your character sitting alone, drinking chai tea, contemplating the meaning of life should instantly be cut."

    Haha! That character sounds like me! I guess my life wouldn't make a very exciting book. Great post, though. I definitely have this problem as opposed to writing too much dialogue, but I'm working on it. Also, nice movie analogy. That's a really good way to think about it.

    ps. Have you ever thought about writing a script of any kind? Maybe your overuse dialogue is trying to tell you something. That's just the sort of thing that would happen to me (subliminal message passed through writing). But, just a thought.

    1. Laurapoet, that's an interesting question. Yes, I have, and for that exact reason. But when I investigated, it involved 2 big things I didn't like:

      1. Moving to Los Angeles.
      2. Hanging over my rights. My understanding is that once you sell your script to a house, they can do whatever they want with it. Publishing houses, on the other hand, work WITH writers.

      So I scrapped that idea and decided I would just have to learn how to write better prose :)

  7. I saw something that I'd actually really like to offer my opinion/advice on. I learned this from someone that I either heard or read about; but in books (fantasy novels especially) it's not always necessary to explain every little teeny tiny detail in the scene, because a lot of it should be left up to the *reader's* imagination.

    That creates an even more personable story to connect with. I've realized after re-reading one of my favorite fantasy novels that the author describes enough to show the scene, and I imagine the rest myself. I think that's something important every author should remember no matter what genre they write.