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How much dialogue to use when novel writing? I find it so boring and unimaginative to write, but yet when I read I appreciate that it often provides key information for the story.

How much is too much dialogue? How much is too little?

15

There's no fixed rule - a novel can be almost completely dialogue or contain very little. If you're finding dialogue boring and unimaginative, I'd have a look at the characters - interesting and imaginative people don't say boring and unimaginative things.

I think of dialogue as where the fun really starts - description has to be through the voice of the narrator, but in dialogue everything can be phrased from a different viewpoint. Characters' viewpoints and style of dialogue can change throughout the novel - you can do character development in a much neater way than in descriptive writing, and exposition is much easier to "show" rather than "tell" when someone other than the narrator is doing it (though beware of the clumsy "Oh, you mean Jane, your sister, who left home when you were six years old" approach - the same things work, and don't work, in dialogue exposition as in description).

A trick I've done is to take a piece of descriptive writing, put it in quotes, then try to rewrite it as if one (or more) of the characters was saying it. It won't work for everyone, but I've usually found something much more interesting which has given me new insight into the character.

6

Look at how your favorite authors handle dialog. (Advice for every writer: Read a lot.)

If dialog is difficult for you, then it's perfectly fine for your narrative voice to use very little of it. Remember that dialog shouldn't cover entire conversations. Skip the hellos and goodbyes - unless they convey some necessary information - and get right into the dialog you need.

Dialog scenes can include any amount of actual dialog. None: "Jack and Diane sat next to each other in the bleachers and talked about car engines." One line: "Jack and Diane sat next to each other, chatting. The conversation paused, then Diane said, 'I hate you.'" Or show a little back and forth, or a lot.

6

Dialogue is an action like any other action in a novel. The amount of dialogue in any given novel should be a function of how much of the action of the novel -- the working out of the story shape of the novel -- involves people talking to each other.

In some novels the working out of the story arc requires lots of people talking to each other. In others very little of the action is conversation. Thus this is not really a style question. It is a question of what kind of story you are telling and how large a role conversation plays in that story.

Now if you are finding the conversation dull to write, that may be an indication that the dialogue you are writing is not actually advancing the story. This is not a question of choosing between dialogue, description, and narration, but of making sure the scene you are writing actually advances the story.

The one place in which style might affect this decision is in a frame story in which the action is reported in dialogue. But even here the same basic rule applies. While a novel like Heart of Darkness is technically almost all told in dialogue, most of that dialogue is actually narration by the storyteller, and within that frame the same principle applies: dialogue is used where conversation is the next step that drives the story forward.

5

Experiencing something as boring or tedious to write is actually a strong diagnostic for what is weakest in your writing. That, in turn, relates back to what you least pay attention to in real life. For example, I love dialogue, but find descriptions cumbersome to write. That's a warning sign that I write descriptions poorly, which in turn means that I'm not observant enough.

So the first step is to spend some dedicated time studying the thing you dislike, which in this case, means paying close attention to how people talk. In particular, try to become aware of how people hide emotions, attitudes and hidden information under the surface of their words. You can also find an author (or a movie) known for dialogue and study how words are deployed there.

Then, when you actually write the dialogue, make sure it's doing work for you. Dialogue is a great way to tell people about a character's history, background, attitudes, personality and moral character. Between two characters it can be the verbal equivalent of sparring or competition; it can hide or flaunt things such aggression, hatred, love or sexual tension. It's also often one of the things people most remember about a piece of writing. Remember, if it bores you, it will also bore your reader.

4

You can write without any dialogue, or almost entirely dialogue.

Zero dialogue would be plausible if you write about a character acting alone, or from the POV of an animal or machine that has no capability of speech (like a dog, in Stephen King's Cujo, or a robotic space probe).

I would say if you find it boring to write, then write as far as you can before you feel like one of your characters must say something to another character. Adopt a doctrine of necessity.

2

Instead of asking how much dialog should be in your story, I think you'll have more luck asking how to make your dialog more interesting. After all, there are some excellent stories out there that have no dialog whatsoever, and others that have pages of dialog at a time.

The key to writing good dialog is to have your characters say things that tie into your conflicts, develop them as characters, tie into your themes, and are appropriate for the setting. Really, these are the elements you should strive to make all of your writing focus on. For writing strong dialog, they have some specific implications:

Don't write small talk.

In real life, people will say hello, ask each other how their doing, give quick updates on their days, and so forth long before they actually talk about anything of importance. In stories, these polite exchanges very rarely define characters or move conflicts forward. You should cut these exchanges down to be as terse as possible or even remove them altogether. It won't sound like "exactly how people speak," but that's not your goal - your goal is dialog that advances your story and keeps your reader engaged.

Use power signalling.

Characters in conflict with each other - and even characters who aren't in conflict with each other but are in relationships that have some sort of hierarchy, like parents and children - will speak in terms that indicate who has more power in the relationship. If you must include pleasantries, including power signalling can infuse even the most pedestrian dialog with double meanings.

If you have two characters in conflict with each other, things can become particularly interesting when they keep trying to signal to each other that they're really the more important person without being overtly rude.

Weave subtext into your dialog.

When characters are in conflict with each other, they will have some sort of problem between them that they very rarely want to deal with constructively. Having them implicitly talk about issues through thinly-veiled insults, power games, and careful manipulation of the truth instead of bringing these issues out into the open makes these conflicts far spicier and more compelling.

Compare these two exchanges:

Sarah's boss walked up to her desk holding a fat binder. "Hi, Sarah, how are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm fine. How are you?"

"I'm doing great! Hey, we just had a big contract come up with Wells Fargo. I'd like you to work on it." Sarah's boss handed the binder to her.

Sarah looked over at the pile already growing on her desk and grimmaced. "I'm sorry, but I'm already very busy. I don't know that I can finish it and the USAA contract before I take maternity leave."

"I know, but everyone else is also really busy. Unfortunately, you're the only one I can ask right now. Just do your best, OK?"

Sarah sighed. "I really can't promise I'll get to it, but I can throw it on the pile. Is it OK if I let you know in a couple days if I run out of time to do it?"

"Sure. But I would really prefer if you got at least some of it done. It doesn't have to be perfect, I'd just like to move it forward."

Sarah grumpily took the binder. "All right, I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks," her boss said, "I really appreciate it."

Versus:

Sarah's boss walked up to her desk holding a fat binder. "Hey, we just had a big contract come up with Wells Fargo. I'd like you to work on it," he said, handing the binder to her.

Sarah looked over at the pile already growing on her desk. "I'm up to my neck in the USAA contract you gave me last week." She pointedly did not take the binder.

"Listen, everyone else is swamped, too." Sarah's boss put the binder on her desk. "Just get it done."

"Sure. I'll be sure to get to it while I'm in the hospital in a few days."

"That would look good in your performance review when you get back!" Sarah's boss said as he walked away.

The first exchange is bland. The conflict is weak and doesn't have much teeth once Sarah and her boss reach a kind of compromise at the end. Much of the dialog doesn't have any impact on what little conflict there is. Outright saying that Sarah is going to have a baby makes the conflict feel heavyhanded. And both characters have a bland voice.

The second exchange is more interesting. Each line of dialog changes the dynamics of the conflict, and the conflict is left entirely unresolved at the end of the exchange even though both characters were clearly aware of it, propelling the story forward. Keeping Sarah's pregnancy in the subtext keeps it from feeling anvilicious. And the ways that the two characters sarcastically danced around the subtext gives them both more voice.


I said earlier that you should worry more about how strong your dialog is than how much you include in your story. But it's worth noting that dialog written using these ideas tends to be significantly terser than dialog that ignores them.

This is for two reasons. First, cutting out small talk simply means there's less talking going on.

Second, when you write dialog that is infused with subtext and power games, many of your lines of dialog will tell your reader multiple things at once. In the second example above, the line, "That would look good in your performance review when you get back!" indicates all of these things at once:

  • It makes it clear that Sarah has to deal with the contract, moving the plot forward mechanically.
  • It shows that the boss is sarcastic and doesn't care too much about his employees, giving him characterization.
  • It makes the conflict between Sarah and her boss palpable.

In one line of dialog that is filled with meaning, I was able to communicate as much as several lines in the first example.

So don't sweat exactly how much dialog you have in your story, but don't be surprised when you shorten your dialog significantly while editing it to make it more impactful.

2

I'm sharing an answer but the answers you have are already very good.

In my experience, dialogue is key to a well-rounded story. Imagine any recipe. Imagine any sport. Imagine any business. All of these have multiple attributes that make them work.

If you remove dialog, you are removing an ingredient or aspect to your craft. You can do this. Some do it well. Feel free to do this.

But, you can also choose to learn to write dialog (in many ways.)

You might choose to see dialog as a tool that perhaps ... you simply have not yet ... mastered.

(I, personally, have not mastered any tools. :) Any. At all. Particularly character desire and motivation and 'hookiness.' I can describe the hell out of a street side cafe, and my dialog is passable. But my characters? Meh. Cardboard cutouts.)

Anyway, you can dispatch dialog like a bad rash. You can send it to the trash heap with the similes and metaphors that we all struggle to find like a lost set of car keys that went through the wash and so, won't work in this day and age anymore anyway. The non-cliches, the fresh new zingers, the way to really connect with the readers. You can throw it all away! Seriously, you can.

Or, just listen the next time you're out, and see how non-linear dialog is.

Non-linear. Think about that. Non. Linear.

Think about the vistas that open up with non-linearity. One character says one thing. Another character says an unrelated thing.

And it makes sense to the reader - because this is how we live our lives.

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

'Drink up,' said Ford, 'you've got three pints to get through.'

'Three pints?" said Arthur. 'At lunchtime?'

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, 'Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.'

'Very deep,' said Arthur, 'you should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you.'

'Drink up.'

1

There are good answers above, and I've read good books that had zero dialog in them (Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon comes to mind) and someone has already mentioned Heart of Darkness as the other extreme, so while there is no solid, set-in-stone answer, I wanted to provide the rule of thumb: 50%. There are extremes, as always, but in general, most agents and acquisition editors are looking for a 50/50 split of dialog and narration.

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    That's a nice solid number, but do you have a source or a citation? Since you're offering a fact rather than an opinion, it should be sourced. – Chris Sunami Feb 5 '18 at 22:16

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