I am participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. I have never in my life written so much of a single story. Although I am supposed to tell my inner editor to shut up this month, she is constantly nagging at me about my structure.

I seem to vary wildly between description/narrative and dialogues. In fact, my entire novel thus far is composed of many scenes of long dialogues which involve a little description of what the characters are doing while they reveal the plot, interspersed with a handful of scenes that are primarily descriptive or perhaps narrative.

It seems to me like I have too much dialogue. Way too much. But I don't know how to find a balance here and help the characters grow and the plot unfold without having people talking all the time.

How to I shift my dialogue into narrative or descriptive text and still maintain the character development, relationship development, and plot movement that I get from writing dialogue? How do I determine whether there is enough dialogue, or too much?

  • This is a great question. Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:25
  • Check out the following: tofp.org/units/flow/dialog/index.htm and tofp.org/units/flow/scene/index.htm Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 18:32
  • 1
    You, YOU! ;) Still, non of the answers offers the golden rule, sadly, of whose existence I'm at best skeptical. Highly praised works, I noticed, tend to focus more on narration (implying more complex stories) while those from 'more-amateur' writers focus on dialog (implying weak story-craft). But that's according to critics; no doubt I enjoyed The Lake of the Long Sun; I, Robot; LOTR and the like, but I liked the HP books more, merely because I could remember how the characters 'felt' to me, not only how they felt. HP had about twice the dialog of the aforementioned classics.
    – Mussri
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 17:14

2 Answers 2


First, for the purposes of NaNoWriMo I strongly suggest that you shoot your inner editor in the head. Write the most awful dreck that you can imagine, and then go back and fix it.

But as for answering your actual question, you should alternate between description and dialogue in the same scene. That is, instead of doing the following:

[Several long paragraphs of description.]

[Several pages of dialogue.]

[Several long paragraphs of description.]

Try something like this instead:

[A few lines of dialogue.]

[A snippet of description, preferably one which relates to the dialogue on some level.]

[A few more lines of dialogue.]

This may be easier said than done, so here are a few more ideas for how to know how and when to insert your descriptive snippets:

  • Use description to control the pacing of the dialogue. Wherever you need a "beat" (a moment of silence or brief lull in the conversation), insert some description.
  • Use description to create atmosphere or theme. If your story is dark and foreboding, break the dialog for a moment to have the character notice a crow picking at some roadkill. Use other descriptive techniques as appropriate to the tone of your story.
  • Use description when you need to turn the dialog in a particular direction. Have one of the characters be distracted momentarily by something in the environment, but have this distraction serve as the excuse for a change in topic.

How to I shift my dialogue into narrative or descriptive text and still maintain the character development, relationship development, and plot movement that I get from writing dialogue?

You don't. If you can do character/relationship development done through dialogue, that's excellent. Note frequently shifting to non-verbal communication will have a better impact, but that's still a dialogue, only without words. But if you can shift descriptions from narrative into dialogue without loss of detail, by all means, do! It's easier to read and more interesting - but harder to write.

If you feel speech doesn't convey something well, only then shift into descriptions and observations. It's easier to say "He wore his usual, worn, sleeveless jeans jacket with a thousand patches" than to think up an excuse to make the protagonist talk with someone about their jacket, but if you can think up a viable excuse and the dialogue will be interesting, choose dialogue!

Use narrative for action. When all is said, there remain things to be done. Yes, plot movement. When words fail to solve problems, let the actions in, and skimp on dialogue not to distract the reader from things that happen.

If the action is not catchy enough to stand on its own, you may overlay dialogue on top of it. Characters perform while talking.

And from time to time, when the action stops, and when most is said, use a section that is neither action nor dialogue. Break the pacing with a reflective, descriptive, emotional, introspective, calm and slow piece with no action whatsoever, that is practically a shock compared to the remaining whirlwind.

How do I determine whether there is enough dialogue, or too much?

Don't worry about that. It's as if a painter was worrying they use too much brush#4. That's unimportant. Worry about pacing, about build-up, about mood, immersion, coherence.

There are stories that are best written without one single line of narrative. The dialogue builds the place, the mood, the conflict and the resolution, and the lack of narrative gives an eerie immersive feel of listening in to actual conversation. And there are stories where words are best avoided. Painted by rich descriptions, poignant in imaging scenes where words would be cheap and shallow. It's up to you to decide which image you want to create and the use of dialogue and narrative is just tools to achieve this image.

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