Monday, January 05, 2015

Do You Have Too Much Dialogue?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I received a lot of fantastic questions on Friday, so I have plenty of topics to keep me busy this month, and possibly well into February. Let's dive in with the first one:
Q: How do I know when there is too much dialogue? Or better yet, how can I transform the dialogue into scenes with a little more action?
Dialogue is a critical part of any story, so it's rare to have "too much." What's more likely is either dialogue that isn't helping convey the story or too little of something else--too little internalization, description, stage direction, or "action." So if you feel there's too much dialogue, check to see what might have gotten left out.

Also check to see if the "too much dialogue" sections are filled with empty dialogue--exchanges where nothing is actually being said to move the story or reveal the characters. You'll often find a lot of small talk fits into this category and can easily be trimmed out.

While there is no hard and fast rule here, a general rule of thumb is (and this can vary by genre and story): anything more than six exchanges of dialogue in a row without any break risks losing the reader. The longer the dialogue, the faster it will likely overwhelm them. Be particularly wary of long passages of dialogue where characters are speaking at each other more than having a conversation (as in dumping information or backstory via dialogue).

(Here's more on infodumping through dialogue)

One easy test to see if you have "too much dialogue" is to zoom out on your page and see if you have a lot of short lines or a nice mix of lines and gray areas. A dialogue-heavy/narrative-sparse page will have a lot of white space and look more like a list than a page from a novel.

This example is a typical set of pages. See the mix between long and short lines? Blocks of gray text and white space? There's a decent balance, so odds are there's a decent mix of dialogue and narrative. Now let's look at the same set of pages with a lot of that narrative taken out.

See the difference? Notice those spots with a lot of short lines? That's all dialogue without anything to support it, so those areas are probably going to feel like there's too much dialogue.

While this visual text won't catch everything, it can be a place to start looking for trouble spots.

Another test is to read the scene out loud. If you find yourself getting a little winded or forgetting who is speaking, that's a red flag that there isn't enough text to support all that dialogue. You could also try reading to someone and having them stop you when they start to get confused or lost.

Finally, there's the "white room" or "talking heads" red flag. Look at the scenes you're worried are dialogue heavy. Can you tell where the scene it set? What things around it look like? Who's in the scene and what are they're doing? If you find a scene where there's a lot of conversation but little description or stage direction, and it feels like "two heads talking in a white room," then odds are you need more description or narrative there.

Fleshing Out a Dialogue-Heavy Scene

The easiest advice is to determine what's missing and add it. If you can't tell where the scene is set, then add a few lines of description about the setting. If you don't know much about the characters in the scene, add something about them that's relevant. If they're just sitting or standing there talking, give them excuses to move around or gesticulate. If you're not showing what the POV character is thinking, slip in some internalization. You might do a little of all of this if this scene is especially sparse.

What I like to do, is use the balance between dialogue and narrative to control my pacing and tension. Dialogue is fast paced, and the narrative slows that pace down and adds the needed pauses to give the dialogue impact. Where I choose to "stop" the reader affects how the story will flow. If I use too many pauses the plot will drag. Too few and readers can feel winded and race by important moments too fast. The right balance will let the tension build and keep the reader hooked.

(Here's more on understanding and controlling pacing)

How you want the scene to read is a good indicator of how many "pauses" you would need and how much narrative to add. If you want the quick-fire sense of an argument or banter, you might have a lot of dialogue with very little narrative, then pause on a particularly witty or biting bit of dialogue that you want readers to stop or reflect on. If you want the scene to feel slower and more thoughtful, you might pause more.

For example, let's look at a snippet from The Shifter with mostly just the dialogue:
“What makes you think you won’t be next?” I asked.

“Because he needs me. I’m helping him.”

“Not many left who aren’t.”

“What do you know? You’re not even in the League, are you?”


“Then shut up. I have it good here. Elder Vinnot said I could go far, but I’ll lose it all if they find out you tricked me. They’ll do to me what they did to—People depend on me,” she whispered. “And I can’t do anything else.”

Six dialogue exchanges, and there's conflict here, lots of emotion, but it's not clear how these characters feel about what's being said, what else is going through their minds, where they are or what they're doing. There are some strong lines here, but they lack emotional punch to really make a reader care what's going on.

Let's put the narrative back in and examine the difference:
“What makes you think you won’t be next?” I asked.

“Because he needs me. I’m helping him.” Her voice cracked.

“Not many left who aren’t.”

She folded her arms across her chest and stuck her chin out. “What do you know? You’re not even in the League, are you?”


“Then shut up. I have it good here. Elder Vinnot said I could go far, but I’ll lose it all if they find out you tricked me. They’ll do to me what they did to—”

She stared off into space, jaw tight, eyes scared.

My fingers crept toward her arm, mere inches off the edge of the cot. Skin brushed skin. My whole hand tingled, and a twinge of guilt tickled my belly.

If I did this, was I any better than the Luminary?

“People depend on me,” she whispered. “And I can’t do anything else.”

Feel that tension? The anticipation? In the first example, the dialogue alone isn't enough to convey what's going on emotionally, so there's nothing really "happening" and no sense of action. But in example two, we see the physical signs of the emotional and physical conflict, and suddenly it feels like it's going somewhere. Let's look closer and examine why these pauses work:

“What makes you think you won’t be next?” I asked.

“Because he needs me. I’m helping him.” [Her voice cracked.] A cracked voice conveys uncertainty and fear, suggesting that this person isn't sure of what she's saying. Even she knows maybe she'll be next.

“Not many left who aren’t.”

[She folded her arms across her chest and stuck her chin out.] More physical signs of her inner conflict over this situation. She's now feeling defensive. [“What do you know? You’re not even in the League, are you?”] This line takes on new meaning now that we see her physical stance. Her words alone sound like she's dismissing the protagonist's argument, but she's really trying to reassure herself. She knows better, but refuses to believe it.


“Then shut up. I have it good here. Elder Vinnot said I could go far, but I’ll lose it all if they find out you tricked me. [They’ll do to me what they did to—”] The break in the dialogue is more pronounced now, and more noticeable. Readers should be wondering who she's referring to, and if it relates to the protagonist's problem (which is does and readers will suspect this at this point in the novel--the stop calls attention to it to reinforce that clue).

[She stared off into space, jaw tight, eyes scared.] The pause to describe her tight jaw shows her refusal to even acknowledge the risk and gives readers time to absorb this, and to wonder about that risk.

[My fingers crept toward her arm, mere inches off the edge of the cot. Skin brushed skin. My whole hand tingled, and a twinge of guilt tickled my belly.

If I did this, was I any better than the Luminary?] Now that readers are thinking about the risk, a longer pause refocuses on the protagonist and what she's doing and thinking. She's also conflicted about acting. Should she do it, even knowing the girl she's speaking with has no choice? The pause lets readers ponder the same question themselves--should the protagonist act? Would they do it?

[“People depend on me,” she whispered. “And I can’t do anything else.”] This line packs a lot more emotional punch after the pause and the deeper look into what's really going on here. Whatever conclusion the reader might have come to by now could be reevaluated after hearing this. It raises the stakes--if the protagonists acts to save herself, this person (not innocent, but not altogether guilty either) and her family, with suffer.

"Action" is an often-misunderstood term in writing, but all it really means is a sense of things moving and a story unfolding. If readers are anticipating what will happen next, that's the result of "action." The characters are acting in ways to make readers want to know what will happen next and keep reading to find out. This is why an internal passage with a great voice and character feels like the story is going somewhere when there's no actual physical "action" occurring. The story is moving, even if the characters are standing still.

When concerned about too much dialogue, try looking at what you want that dialogue to accomplish, and what's missing to do that. Then just fill in the blanks.

How do you handle too much dialogue in your novels? 

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Great suggestions! I'll have to try that visual test on my next MS.

  2. I like the way you presented your case. Shrinking page size down so you can compare several pages for line-length is a brilliant suggestion! I think this phenomenon is caused by over-zealous devotion to the "show, don't tell" mantra.

    My very fine editor, Renee Vaughn, spotted this flaw in my manuscript right away, and I am doing my best to correct that.

    1. Thanks! I think writers do a lot of things to avoid breaking a "rule" sometimes, and it's good to remind ourselves that it's the story that matters most, and as long as we focusing on the best storytelling we can, the rest usually works itself out.

      Good luck with your edits.

  3. Fantastic tips Janice, I will take all of it and use it for my Nanowrimo draft. Thank you.

  4. Wow, I love the idea of zooming out. I do it all the time by accident, now that can have a purpose!

  5. Thank you!! The zooming out advice is great. Also, reimagining what is considered "action" is incredibly helpful!

  6. Oh my gosh this is exactly the type of help I've been looking for half the day. Thank you so much!

  7. I have a question in my WIP. I have two priestesses telling the evil sea deity's story.


    The evil sea deities’ parents had the gray death long ago when he was a human and a prince,” She continued. “The evil sea deity when he was mortal was named Ruben as in his name before he was born. His parents Jacqueline and Aland were getting older,”

    Priestess Cara replied. “It took a lot of tries for the queen before she could have children, if she did it, it would be a difficult pregnancy and it was. Long after Ruben was born, the king and queen spoiled there child until he got older and had adventures of his own. One day King Aland was on a hut getting food but what had happened… was his friend shot a bow and arrow into his leg. Then blood gushed from that wound. Priestess Seraphina got out the bow and arrow and then cleaned it. The king was in bed for a few days and he was getting angry so the maid named Opal went to the market place to sell what she had made. Opal made bread, cheese, and some tea that was in a basket. Lucian Raphael, a bird merchant had a lot of different birds and ones who could sing so Opal talked Lucian Raphael into trading bread and cheese for one of the birds that was blue and gray and green,” She drank some water before continuing the tale. “This bird was in a cage. It was brought to the king. The bird sang and sang for the king until one night. The kingdom grew ill with this unknown illness until their bodies became grey and they died. Then the priestess Seraphina told that no one could come into the palace. Everyone in the kingdom was died and on one was alive. The bird was sick with the grey death so the bird died too. One day, Ruben came back to the palace. Not a soul was alive the kingdom was in shambles. He vowed on finding the name of the guy who gave the birds to his parents. Ruben wanted revenge for what had happened. “

    Priestess Zarya went on. “The maid Opal left the kingdom when everyone was sick and then she fell into the sea and she was changed into a mermaid with an indigo tail. Lucian Raphael died from an eel-like creator zapping him with electricity when Ruben found him and became the evil sea deity from the eel-like creators master a dark priest with magic powers. Then Ruben wanted to find the descendant of Lucian Raphael who he thought to be Princess Leilani. Lucian Raphael’s descendant was a mermaid named Luciana,”

    Is there a way for me to revise this?

    Thank you.

    1. You might look for ways to break up the text more so it's not one big block. Readers tend to skim when they see that much text.

      You can add some thoughts from the POV character as they react to this story, or have someone ask a question, or stop the speaker to add a detail. Listen and watch how people tell stories and notice the breaks and pauses they do.

      The goal is to make it sound like a person talking and not like you're reading a summary of something.

  8. Thank you. I plan on self-publishing my writing. Do you know how I don't have to spend alot of money for it?

    1. Every Thursday I have indie authors talking about the process, so I suggest you start there and read up on it. There are plenty of low-cost options. Amazon doesn't charge anything to publish your book, though you'd want to spend some money on getting a cover designed and the manuscript edited and proofread.

      Here's a link to get you started:

      And another that talks about costs:

      And here's the full list of all the self publishing articles. You can read up on what you need to.

    2. Don't do it. Just don't.

  9. I know this article was written a while back but I've always had the issue of wondering if I'm overusing dialogue. I saw videos saying each line should reveal something and that useless banter was bad.

    I misinterpreted this as having characters conversing for too long being bad so I had extreme writer's block because I doubted my skill. This article helped me to open up my mind a whole lot as my lines were actually important for character development and were actually good.

    Thank you for your useful input. I'll be sure to credit you when I've finished the whole thing.

    1. Oh good! I love dialogue, and use a lot of it. My first passes in a scene are more dialogue than anything else.

      The problem isn't so much a lot of dialogue, but a lot of "empty dialogue," which is dialogue that does nothing but fill space.

      Here's an article I wrote on that to help you there:

      Yes, dialogue should serve the story in some way, but fun banter is a common way to show chemistry between characters, so it works, even it it's "just" banter. Banter can help characterize.

      Trust your gut :) And your crit partners or beta readers. Write the amount of dialogue that feels right to you. You can always tweak it later if readers point it out as not working for whatever reason.