The dialogue bubbles that appear on my smartphone in texts has got me thinking about dialogue (again), so I want to continue this topic from last month.
In response to last month’s article, one of my subscribers asked, “How much dialogue is too much?” That’s a good question and one that has no clear-cut answer. It all depends on the scene and the characters involved. However, there are two questions you can ask yourself to help ensure that your dialogue is concise, effective, and efficient.
1. Could more information be revealed through dialogue?
Many details, such as a character’s education level, age, and outlook on life, can easily be reflected in the words and tone in which he or she speaks, and thus alleviates the need for distracting backstory or asides. For example: “I ain’t got no time for all this gobbledigook!” This character is most likely elderly, uneducated, cantankerous, and cynical—all of which is conveyed in only nine words.
2. Can important information be revealed through actions or the use of punctuation rather than spoken words in the course of dialogue?
In other words, show rather than tell, a mantra all writers are familiar with. For example, through action:
“It’s time to leave.” Susan rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.
(rather than) “It’s time to leave,” Susan said, frustrated.
“I walked in the door and—”
“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim said.
(rather than) “I walked in the door and fell over the rug.”
“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim interrupted her.
In both of the above examples, the writer shows the reader vital information that adds depth and nuance to the scene without taking the reader out of the scene to tell him or her pertinent details.
Finally, a good practice for determining if your dialogue is too lengthy or includes too much detail is reading your scene out loud or, better yet, having someone else read it out loud to you. Often our ears will catch what our eyes don’t. Even if we struggle with writing dialogue that flows and sounds authentic, we know it when we hear it—and when we don’t.