How much dialogue is too much?


 I have a confession to make.

I like writing dialogue.

To me, dialogue makes a book sing.  It puts the reader in the characters’ heads better than any other technique in the author’s toolkit.

But the question remains: how much dialogue is too much?

As I analyze it, and I would really like to hear your thoughts on the subject, the issue is not the number of words of dialogue in a book or a passage, but whether each word spoken advances the story.

If the characters are talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, an author has gotten off track. If the give and take is about a crucial element in the plot, the author is cooking with gas.

A few years ago an Indie author, who will remain anonymous, asked me to look at the manuscript for his first book. He had already written several other books, which enjoyed good sales.  He had his first manuscript in a drawer and wanted to publish it. But he had misgivings about the writing.

It was his first effort, and he had grown as a writer.

I read the book and saw immediately what bothered him.

As the book progressed he used the same technique over and over. The technique was that he would put two people in a room and have them engage in long conversations.  The conversations were really more like soliloquies.  One character would opine about the meaning of life, and while he was catching his breath the other character would opine about how he saw life.

Can you spell boring?

To his credit the author dropped me a note before I could respond to him with my thoughts and told me he had looked at the manuscript again in depth and realized what he had done. He knew that he had to fix it so that dialogue didn’t become an excuse for long dissertations.

However, an author can end up in a dialogue ditch without writing long, dense paragraphs of conversation.

It is just as deadly for the characters to talk about the weather, last week’s ball game, their new car, or whatever, unless those things present a turning point for the plot.

So, when I write dialogue I try to make every word count and cut anything extraneous to the story.  That’s easier said than done.  I usually have to let a passage ferment a while, then go back to it and see how much fluff I should cut.

How do you handle dialogue in your writing?

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