When dialogue is great, it can be terrific, keeping readers or audiences on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the verbal sparring of Bogart and Bacall, the wisecracking characters of 1930s films, or dramatic courtroom exchanges in A Few Good Men, dialogue can spark and enthral. It’s not just true of films or plays either – there are plenty of novels with powerful dialogue. But there are also times when dialogue ruins scenes
But here’s the problem – dialogue can be a little too seductive. Or to be more exact, writers who are rather too fond of their characters can sometimes find it difficult to know how much is too much.
The problems with dialogue are numerous and linked to different issues. For example, writers who find their characters springing spontaneously to life, like Athena from her father’s head, might feel they spend a good part of their time just reporting what their characters are seeing. It’s like taking dictation. Sometimes it’s like being possessed as you struggle to keep up with what your characters are saying and doing. Your fingers fly over the keyboard and you’re hoping they’ll slow down.
When characters won’t stop talking
Characters like this can have a real spark because they haven’t been consciously constructed or built from the ground up. They have not been sketched out on paper but appear to emerge from the writer’s subconscious. They can be unpredictable, obstructive, overly chatty (or the opposite). They can pull the plot way off track. They have their own opinions that can supersede the author’s.
If they are chatty, their dialogue can go on longer than necessary, and if they’re the amusing type, the author may find them entertaining. However, this can have a detrimental effect on the pacing and plot. Amusing dialogue scenes can only go on so long. Dialogue scenes should usually serve a purpose.
If the author has two characters like this in the same scene, the situation can become more unmanageable. Cutting back these scenes is pretty much an example of murdering your darlings. The scenes might seem to be full of life, but a novel is not episodic. There should be a plot, and it should keep on moving. It shouldn’t be paused frequently for a chat break.
When dialogue destroys your atmosphere
Where this can become an even bigger issue is when there’s a conflict between the tone of the dialogue and the genre of the novel or its overall atmosphere.
For example, if you want a dark, foreboding atmosphere to hang over the narrative, too much witty repartee is going to blow it out of the water. Think horror novels or dark thrillers. The dialogue becomes tone-deaf.
It would work in a witty chic-lit novel, but there are other narratives where you really need to reign it in. You particularly don’t want it at wrong moments in the plot, where it interrupts the story or delays important events. Too much of this and your reader may bail out completely.
When dialogue makes scenes too ‘loud’
Another issue I’ve seen in manuscripts is that dialogue can actually amplify the volume in scenes where you want a quieter and possibly more introspective atmosphere. Sometimes, instead of dialogue, indirect speech is really better. There are other reasons why you might choose to use indirect speech, but volume is one. Another is that too much speech which has a low information to wordcount ratio buries important details. You don’t want the most important details of the speech to be hidden among less important chat.
While people can drone on in real life, you have to be a bit more ruthless with characters. Novels, like films and plays, are artificial constructs. They are not a realistic representation of life. The scenes are edited, with toilet breaks and other mundanities usually left out. The same should be true of speech. You don’t have to be puritanical about it and only include the absolutely most relevant dialogue, but you do have to weigh the length and tone of your dialogue against the surrounding narrative.
When dialogue slows the pace
While dialogue often produces shorter lines and paragraphs down a page, which leads to the reader turning the page faster, it can also be draining to read if it goes on too long. This is particularly true if it doesn’t have an important purpose. The reader isn’t reading to eavesdrop on people, they want to see what happens to the characters and follow the plot to the end. When dialogue works really well it can boost the pace, but when it doesn’t it can slow the pace to a crawl.
A novel that is heavy on dialogue is going to have a different tone from one that has much less. This doesn’t mean that the first is wrong – it could be a feature of the novel. But it does have an impact on tone and volume, though there are other factors like the personalities of the character and the genre that also have to be factored in.