Friday, July 3, 2009

Too Much Dialogue

by Jean Henry Mead

Dialogue makes or breaks a novel. Excessive conversation accelerates the plot and your reader can’t relax. It’s like a nervous people who can’t stop talking because she’s afraid of silence. Dialogue must be balanced with narrative as well as action.

If your characters all sound alike you’ve got a problem. You have to vary speech patterns so they can be recognized without dialogue tags. Make effective use of speech patterns by having a character “murder” the language with “he don’t” or “you was.” Or have someone stutter or use cliches. Those are extreme examples of speech patterns but they individualize your characters.

The quality of information your character imparts is also important. One of your characters can be feather-brained and rattle on without making sense—but not for long. Another character may sound like Einstein because his words are few and wise. Like the old brokerage firm commercial: “When you whisper, others listen,” remember that short bursts of dialogue elicit the reader’s attention while long diatribes can put them to sleep.

If you’re writing about Abe Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address, you need to split it up with a gunshot or someone interrupting him so that it doesn’t go on forever. Monologues belong on the “Tonight Show,” not in your novel.

Dialogue should be lucid. Don’t have a character reciting a laundry list of complaints without taking a breath. Again, have another character interrupt him by asking a question or punching him in the nose.

Don’t overedit your dialogue. No one, whether living or in fiction, speaks with perfect diction—unless he’s an actor reciting a script. Make sure there's plenty of emotion as well as color in every character’s speech.

Bharti Kirchner’s article, “What Did You Say?” emphasizes dialogue as a language unto itself. “It has its own rules and rhythm and is tightly focused. You don’t necessarily answer a question, but, as often as not, go off on a tangent and start a fresh topic. This keeps the reader in suspense.“

For example:

“Joey!” She frowned at him from across the room.
“You’re late.”
“You look so beautiful today that I’m going to take your picture.”

When you leave out tag lines, the conversation is allowed to flow more smoothly. But, make sure that each character's speech patterns area easily recognizable.


Morgan Mandel said...

I was amazed at how many tag lines I should have left out in Killer Career, but my editor, Helen Ginger, found them.

Also, I had to go back in and add more description because my novel was too dialogue driven. Since description is my weakness, I have to force myself to include it. At least I know what I have to do now.

Morgan Mandel

Helen said...

It's also good, when you have a rather long conversation going, to use tags like the one you used in your sample rather than too many "he said" or "she replied."

Great information, Jean.

Straight From Hel

Dana Fredsti said...

Too many tag lines are annoying as hell, but too few can leave the reader confused and irritated. It's a balancing act, to be sure!