How Much Dialogue is Too Much?

When I first heard the expression, “You can go blind listening to that story,” I took a second look at the prose in question.  I quickly agreed that the long stretches of unbroken dialogue were tiresome and cut off all senses with the exception of hearing.

And then I revisited my own writing.

I love dialogue and often fear that I overuse it.

While dialogue serves many important functions, it is only one element of fiction. It definitely has its place, but it shouldn’t take over the story.

How much dialogue is too much?

At a recent dinner meeting of Guelph Writers Ink, Cindy Carroll suggested that thirty percent of the novel should be dialogue. Elsewhere, I read that the percentage should be closer to fifty.

Truthfully, I don’t think there is a magic number out there. Instead, I try to keep in mind that characters who talk too much can be just as annoying as real people who dominate conversations.

In their upcoming thriller, Some Kind of Peace, Scandinavian authors Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff skillfully weave dialogue and narrative to create tension. This is especially apparent in the therapy sessions where psychologist Siri Bergman interacts with her patients.

If I focus only on the dialogue, I would probably stop reading the book.

Dialogue Only Excerpt

“I’m happy for your sake, Sara. Truly. How long have you known this man?”

“Oh, a few weeks. But we’ve been seeing each other a lot. He gave me this bag.” She held up a Gucci bag. “He takes me out to dinner. He’s nice to me.”

Sara looks at me, waiting for validation.

“Sara, you’re a grown-up and hardly need my approval before you start a relationship.”

Actual Excerpt

“I’m happy for your sake, Sara. Truly. How long have you known this…man?”

Sara looks down at the carpet, resting her upper body against her knees and rocking slowly back and forth.

“Oh, a few weeks. But we’ve seen each other a lot. He gave me this bag,” she adds, and as if to prove the legitimacy of the relationship, she holds up an oversized, monogram-patterned Gucci bag.

“He takes me out for dinner.”

I say nothing.

“He’s nice to me.”

Sara shrugs and looks questioningly at me, waiting for validation.

“Sara, you’re a grown-up and hardly need my approval before you start a relationship,” I say, but my tone of voice reveals how worried I really am.

It doesn’t seem right. A middle-aged, successful man courts a young girl with bright green nail polish, a charming borderline personality, and arms and legs zebra-striped with scars from razor blades and knives. I realize to my own surprise that I’m afraid he will exploit Sara.

Any thoughts out there?


27 responses to “How Much Dialogue is Too Much?

  1. Pingback: Is Three Sentences a Charm for #Dialogue? | Joan Y. Edwards

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  5. Sorry I’m late chiming in. I know I don’t always stick to it, but I think the dialogue needs to further the action that’s happening, or push the story ahead. I don’t care for dialogue that written just for the sake of hearing a character talk, if that makes sense. It’s like listening to a person speak who just wants to hear their own voice, and that’s annoying. Good post!

  6. As a long-time writer of published poetry, essays, and stories (among other things) as well as a broadcast journalist, I tend to FEEL words on the page, especially my own. I also live what I write, putting myself inside each scene and conversation. Whether description, exposition, or whatever else, anything that doesn’t “sing” and feels out of balance stops me, and I adjust until the page sings. This may sound “way out” to some, but it works for me. Writing is both science and art, and I tend to come down more heavily on the art (singing words) side than I do on the science (counting words) side.

  7. To paraphrase my friends in the real estate game, it’s all a matter of balance. Some are able to find the equilibrium intuitively; others need a more hands on approach to find the right percentage.

  8. I feel that I write great dialogue but I’m still working on finding balance with descriptions and actions involving the other senses. Thank you for the great example -that helps a lot!
    Carole Avila
    Posse Member

  9. I was talking with my writers’ group just he other night about dialogue. Sometimes, writers can get away with a lotof dialogue if it is written stylishly in that manner. I gave an example of the late Robert Parker who used dialogue and tag lines a LOT. sometimes it the the nature of the story to give long narratives. If done correctly, it’s okay. There are books where most of the story is dialogue which takes skill to pull off.

    • Thanks for dropping by. I agree that it is definitely a skill to pull off a book with either lots of dialogue or lots of narrative. My friends who write literary fiction excel in the latter.

  10. I think I followed that formula without actually knowing I was doing it. I learned from my siblings, that they wouldn’t read a book if it had more black on the pages than white. (Silly non-readers). I let my characters tell the story, I don’t plan how much dialogue deliberately.

  11. I used to hear all the time in workshops that we should INCREASE the amount of dialogue because people were accustomed to film/TV where they got only dialogue and the mannerisms of the actors to go by aside from visuals. I think modern novels DO have more dialogue, and more is dramatized (sometimes too much, because one book I recently read dramatized EVERYTHING–the heroine got into her car, started it, navigated traffic, walked up to the first building, opened the door, and so forth, when I would have just done a scene break from the last interesting bit of the previous location to the first interesting bit of the new location–and it was a Notable Book and so forth.) This book could’ve used a bit of narrative summary, because the travel bits were very repetitive and boring.

    I think that if your dialogue has action tags and you intersperse interior stuff the way the second example shows, you don’t have much to worry about. People are supposedly “afraid” of long unbroken paragraphs of text, and that’s why dialogue used to be advocated as a remedy. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far, but it’ll self-correct soon enough.

    If you are inclined to write mostly dialogue (not YOU personally, but the royal “YOU” audience, if you will), try screenplays or plays. I find those very challenging, as I am constantly putting in little asides and thoughts that the actors can’t very well convey in just “business” and dialogue. Actors do very well putting across a character’s inner world–most of them do, anyway–but they can’t get across “The lake reminded her of her childhood swimming hole where her brother had drowned in his thirteenth year” or whatnot. Of course there are many readers who won’t read a book that has such a line in it–so I tend to think dialogue is a winning deal with modern readers.

    Hey, @jamesrcallan–are you the Jim Callan from the Mt. Pleasant/East Texas writers’ guild that puts on the conference? We’ve talked before, when my short story won the contest! You’re now an OTP author, I hear. Congrats!

    (If you’re not the guy . . . let me quote Roseanna Roseannadanna and say, “Never mind.” LOL)

  12. Fascinating topic….and always timely in this business. I like 25 – 30% of total word count. Maybe 20% is ideal for most readers, but, no matter, there needs to be a balance. A writer friend recently told me, “I don’t write dialogue well.” Yet, when I read some of what he’d written I thought it was very good. Sometimes a writer doesn’t know how to judge their own work. That could be another topic.

    • Welcome, Tim. That 30% figure seems to be a popular one. Most writers I know seem to throw that particular percentage around. As a reader, I prefer more dialogue to narrative and tend to skim over long narrative paragraphs. But that’s just me.

  13. Without the secret key, I would have never figured out how to post a comment! Thank you, Joanne, for the heads up. Nice post, BTW.

    To me, the proportions seem to take on a natural rhythm. As you say, too much dialogue is like compulsive gabbers– a strain on the recipient. Too many long sentences and longer paragraphs of description bore the bejeezes out of me, too.

    Alternate. That’s the name of the game.

  14. I actually went through an entire manuscript and did a word count on the ratio of dialogue to narrative. I’m an acquisitions editor and sometimes I feel authors get carried away. Certainly increases pages, if not word count! No, I don’t want talking heads, I want to get all five senses involved. Surely these conversations don’t exist in empty space (unless the genre is sci-fi. . . .)

    Good post, Joanne!

    • Thanks again for the blog support, Sunny. While I’m a bit surprised to hear that you did an actual word count on the ratio of dialogue to narrative, I may actually do that myself on several chapters of my ms. I shudder whenever I encounter talking heads in other books–I don’t want my readers to have the same reaction.

  15. I must agree, you can have too much dialogue. And while there may be a good percentage number for the book as a whole, certainly some scenes will have a higher percentage of dialogue and be fine, while others may have little or no dialogue and be okay. The opposite is true as well.
    You must look at the scene, determine what you are trying to accomplish, and then weave in the proper amount of dialogue to accomplish that goal. That percentage could range from 0 % to 100%. Well, maybe not 100%. But certainly 90%.
    That’s my opinion.

    • James, thanks for dropping by. I agree that we need to look at each scene individually. Some scenes need the taut dialogue to build up tension, while others would benefit from more narrative.

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