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 and agreed with the comment. 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. Weaving in action and narrative helps balance the scenes and engage the reader. Dialogue definitely has its place, but it shouldn’t take over the story.
How much dialogue is too much?
At a local meet-up, one author suggested that thirty percent of the novel should be dialogue. Elsewhere, I read that the percentage should be closer to fifty.
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.
As an experiment, I selected an excerpt from my recent release, Too Many Women in the Room, and removed the descriptive and narrative elements.
Dialogue-Only Version (146 Words)
“Thanks for coming,” Luke said and turned toward the female officer. “Detective Irina Banicki will be sitting in. Sounds like quite a shindig last night. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“It was our rehearsal dinner for the opening of—”
“Rehearsal dinner? You mean like for a wedding?”
“Not quite. David and Susan had planned to test-drive some of Xenia’s signature dishes and reveal our new venture to everyone.”
“So, you were a silent partner in this venture until Michael Taylor spilled the beans. That must have upset your plans…made you angry…”
“I felt a surge of anger at both David and Michael, but it passed. We were there to celebrate the opening, not spar over pettiness.”
“I think it was more than—”
“Why did you keep your involvement a secret?” Irina asked. “Were you afraid or embarrassed to tell your friends?”
Here’s the Actual Excerpt (436 Words)
“Thanks for coming,” Luke said and turned toward the female officer. “Detective Irina Banicki will be sitting in.”
Irina Banicki. I racked my brain but couldn’t recall the name. Was she new to the department? I hadn’t seen her at the Christmas party. I would have remembered the tall, willowy brunette with razor-sharp cheekbones. Late thirties. Maybe early forties. Young and on the upward spiral.
She inclined her head. I nodded but said nothing. There was no need to engage in conversation and allow myself to be distracted. Instead, I turned and focused on Luke.
Frowning, he rustled through the loose pages filled with scattered handwriting. After locating the right page, he cleared his throat and made eye contact. “Sounds like quite a shindig last night. Do you want to tell me about it?”
Tell him how we planned it or how everything went south? The question was too open-ended. Was that part of his plan? Get me to tell everything and later sift through for any incriminating nuggets. “It was our rehearsal dinner for the opening of—”
“Rehearsal dinner? You mean like for a wedding?” Luke asked innocently enough, but I could hear the amusement in his tone.
A giggle escaped from Irina.
I forced myself to smile and make eye contact with Luke. “Not quite. David and Susan had planned to test-drive some of Xenia’s signature dishes and reveal our new venture to everyone.”
“So, you were a silent partner in this venture.” Luke alternated between raising and dropping his Magnum eyebrows while still maintaining eye contact. A talent he must have perfected in his younger days. “You were until Michael Taylor spilled the beans. That must have upset your plans…made you angry…”
Angry enough to kill? I’ve been told I wear my emotions and would make a terrible poker player. With my feelings about Michael, I must have shown thunderous anger and disapproval all evening. Intuitive Jean would have been able to read my face and then share her observations with Carlo. “I felt a surge of anger at both David and Michael, but it passed. We were there to celebrate the opening, not spar over pettiness.”
Luke’s eyes widened in surprise. “I think it was more than—”
My nostrils picked up a musky smell. Not too unpleasant but a bit overpowering. A woman’s scent, one I steered away from at the cosmetics counter. I turned and looked up into intense green eyes.
Irina had decided to become an active participant in the interrogation. “Why did you keep your involvement a secret? Were you afraid or embarrassed to tell your friends?”
I couldn’t resist putting on my math-teacher hat…
The dialogue-only version represents 33.4 percent of the actual excerpt.
When Gilda Greco invites her closest friends to a VIP dinner, she plans to share David Korba’s signature dishes and launch their joint venture— Xenia, an innovative Greek restaurant near Sudbury, Ontario. Unknown to Gilda, David has also invited Michael Taylor, a lecherous photographer who has throughout the past three decades managed to annoy all the women in the room. One woman follows Michael to a deserted field for his midnight run and stabs him in the jugular.
Gilda’s life is awash with complications as she wrestles with a certain detective’s commitment issues and growing doubts about her risky investment in Xenia. Frustrated, Gilda launches her own investigation and uncovers decades-old secrets and resentments that have festered until they explode into untimely death. Can Gilda outwit a killer bent on killing again?
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In 2008, Joanne Guidoccio retired from a 31-year teaching career and launched a second act that tapped into her creative side. Slowly, a writing practice emerged. Her articles and book reviews were published in newspapers, magazines, and online. When she tried her hand at fiction, she made reinvention a recurring theme in her novels and short stories. A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romance, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.
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