When you’re writing fiction, how much dialogue do you need? a student in a recent class asked.
Dialogue happens in scenes, so pacing might be your first consideration. Scenes heavy in dialogue read quickly, so you might avoid writing three or more chatty scenes in a row.
(On the other hand, you might not — “how much dialogue?” is a stylistic choice. Your choice.)
Next, consider your genre.
A psychological thriller might have less dialogue than a romance novel, or a mystery, for example, because the psychological thriller is concerned with characters’ state of mind: their thoughts.
Most importantly however, think about your readers’ entertainment.
Entertainment trumps all other considerations.
When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating an entertaining experience
In revision, look at each scene of your novel. Is the scene entertaining? (Ask your beta readers.)
All scenes can be improved, so check:
- Your transitions, into and out of each scene;
- Scene setting: is it clear who the viewpoint character is, and why he’s there?
- Have you given a nod to time and place? (Check your timeline for continuity);
- Who “wins” the scene (does every character in the scene have a goal?)
I like writing dialogue, so if a scene’s flagging, I’ll kick it along by adding dialogue, or spicing up the dialogue — anything to add entertainment value.
What’s your style?
How much dialogue? is always a matter of style. You’re the boss; it’s your style for that novel.
The first time I read Robert B. Parker’s Western novel Appaloosa, I was struck by the amount of dialogue: that’s Robert B. Parker’s style.
As we’ve said, novels with lots of dialogue read more quickly than novels with extensive narrative. Done well, these novels are page-turners. Unfortunately, if the dialogue’s done badly, readers won’t finish the novel.
Tips for better dialogue
Let’s look at some tips to help you to write better dialogue.
1. Focus solely on your dialogue for a scene first (this helps you to write more dramatically)
As I said in this article:
When I write scenes, I write the first sentence, and the last sentence of the scene. I also write down what effect I want from the scene.
When you write “business” — the action part of the scene, description and other narrative — with the dialogue, your dialogue can fade into the background. You pay less attention to it.
Try writing your dialogue first: your readers will pay more attention to it than to anything else in the scene, so you should too.
2. Avoid repetition: it waters down your dialogue
As I suggested in 3 Fiction Writing Tips: Editing For Story Flow:
…when you’re lightly editing for flow, look for any “as you know” constructions, such as: “As you know Bob, my wife Tiffany is an accountant.”
Basically, avoid repetition. Nuke repetitions when you find them.
If you’ve spent three paragraphs describing the sun setting when you open the scene, avoid the sunset as a topic in your dialogue.
3. Keep your dialogue in character
Not easy, but necessary.
From John Sandford’s Silken Prey:
After a couple minutes of silence, Virgil said to Lucas, “At least we know he’s not lying to us now.”
“How’s that?” Lucas asked.
“His lips aren’t moving…”
From Philippa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool:
I showed him a sulky face. ‘I am commanded by the king, I am commanded by the Duke of Northumberland, I am commanded by his son Lord Robert Dudley, I am commanded by my father; you might as well join in. Every other man in London seems to think he can order me.’
Generally speaking, novels today feature more dialogue than novels written even a decade ago. Always however, the amount of dialogue is up to you. Have fun. 🙂
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