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?

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