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How long do you reckon dialogue ought to be?

  1. Let it flow!

    61.5%
  2. Within a certain number of pages.

    15.4%
  3. As tight as possible.

    23.1%
  4. Dialogue is for wimps! Real protagonists talk with their guns!

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  1. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    How much dialogue is too much?

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by NK_UT, Aug 4, 2020.

    In terms of the length of each dialogue scene, that is.

    In my book "The Exclusion Zone", the story is a combination man-v-man / man-v-nature(environment?) / man-v-supernatural. The protagonist only encounters five other living humans throughout the course of the story, and only three of those encounters result in proper dialogue. All of them are scenes in which the protagonist is trying to get information out of uncooperative antagonists. There is a fourth dialogue event, but it's with a traumatized girl who is prevented from speaking by her traumatic experience. That hardly counts as a proper dialogue.

    Each conversation takes between 20 and 40 pages to play out, and each one reveals a little bit about what's happening in the story in addition to revealing information about the protagonist. The rest of the story consists of short monologues as the protagonist contemplates how to handle events within the setting.

    I've always felt that so many pages dedicated to so few dialogue scenes left things somewhat unbalanced. but even after several rewrites, the length of each dialogue scene stays about the same. The dialogue itself flows a little better and information is revealed in a more natural way with each rewrite, but the length stays fairly static.

    I've treated this as a sign that that's just how the dialogue is supposed to play out in this particular story, but I can't help that but think it could be written more tightly without sacrificing the natural progression of dialogue.

    What are your thoughts on dialogue length?

    If this is in the wrong section, please help me move it. I looked around but couldn't find a dedicated "dialogue" forum.
     
  2. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Forty pages of straight dialog is way too much, IMO. Usually, dialog is worked into the story and not in large chunks. Dialog can be fun to write, and a lot of newer writers run with it, but I've found less dialog sometimes says more. Sure, there are examples of heavy-dialog stories, but the way you are trying to separate the dialog from the rest of the narrative doesn't make much sense to me.
     
  3. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber marshmallow Contributor

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    That seems like a lot. . . I don't think I've actually ever seen that much before. All the books that I have ever liked, off the top of my head, rarely have straight dialogue sections of more than a few pages at a time.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
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  4. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    Things that I've read and what I write are about 20 to 30% dialogue.
     
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  5. Cephus

    Cephus Contributor Contributor

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    It depends on a lot of different factors. I've read books where the overwhelming majority of the book is in a single room with two characters having a conversation. It works in the context of the story because there is virtually no action going on. Some genres, this could be more useful than others so you really can't say that it either works broadly or doesn't work broadly. Maybe yes, maybe no.

    Personally, I tend to be a bit dialog heavy, but certainly not 40 pages straight. I may have chapters that are largely dialog driven, but they are interspersed with chapters with more action.
     
  6. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    Thanks for the replies.

    It's hard to decide which bits to keep and which to give up.

    How do you all go about deciding what to lose? Especially if a lot of the dialogue is structured around providing characterization as well as revealing details about the world and plot.
     
  7. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    I see it as a jazz piece where the ensemble has a dialog through their solo and then drop back into the narrative (melody). The turnaround is a change in scene and stays in the melody for a few bars before another dialog solo. Which probably only makes sense in my head.
     
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  8. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    That's a really interesting way of putting it. The way you put it makes total sense to me.

    If I get it the way you intended it, it should flow in and out of the narrative both spontaneously but in a way that matches the rhythm of the narrative. taking cues from notes within the narrative that help it launch off in a natural way.
     
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  9. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Contributor Contributor

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    I participated in a playwriting collaboration and one of the things I found interesting is the balance of dialogue versus description. The stage directions were more the background information and the dialogue told the story. Ideally they'd work together to tell the story, but that kind of writing is designed to eventually be visual.

    I'd say if you're telling the story in the dialogue, see if you can tell some of it in the description or internal thoughts instead. Or see if any of the dialogue is even telling the story. Sometimes what we think is important is actually cluttering the story and giving too much to the audience. In the end it's really up to you to see if all of it is necessary.

    And just... Don't do what Ayn Rand did. She did a monologue over 20 pages. A monologue.
     
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  10. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    That's one of the things I'm struggling with right now. The story is told in the first person, and the protagonist does make observations about the setting and plot, the dialogue scenes are broken up with observations and internal thoughts. But, it's hard to tell when it's clunky and when it's advancing the plot, and how much of it is world-building for the sake of world-building.
     
  11. Bakkerbaard

    Bakkerbaard Senior Member

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    Personally, I love good dialogue and while forty pages of it seems like a lot, if it's excellent dialogue, it'll sooner feel like twenty.
    My stuff is pretty dialogue heavy and I think that even if it doesn't always move the plot forward, good banter says something about the characters too. The opening from Reservoir Dogs comes to mind.
    And sometimes, like art, something doesn't need another function beyond 'entertaining'.
     
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  12. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Of course it depends on how you write it, but this sounds like a setup for an extremely frustrating story where it's all blocked conversations. There's a book by Kieth Johnstone called Impro—it's about acting for the stage, in improv (as you might be able to guess) and he says over and over that one of the worst problems beginning acting students have is they like to block the flow of whats happening. In improv people make offers on the fly, and another actors either accepts or blocks the offer. Some actors have a tendency to block, and it always kills all energy in the scene. They need to learn to always accept anything the other actors suggest. There are many ways of blocking, it isn't always obvious. But it stems from being afraid of exposing themselves, or opening up in front of an audience.

    I have no idea if this even applies to what you're doing, but it sounds to me like you've got a story where every character (except the MC) is blocking all the time. I suppose this could be done in an entertaining and dramatic way, but it still seems like it might end up frustrating for the reader. And I think it would be very difficult to do it well.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, it seems like the setup of the story is what's forcing these lengthy dialogue scenes. Do the scenes move the story forward? If not you might need to think about restructuring the story, or at least making sure the dialogue always advances the story rather than impeding it.

    A question—while these blocked conversations are occuring, is there another layer to the story where the action is advancing?
     
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  13. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    I think having a full page of dialogue or more with nothing else going
    on, is too much. Though it is great for exposition and (info dumps),
    but they can get frustrating when nothing else is happening except
    talking. Mix or break it up a little with personal thoughts, and some
    action like mannerisms and reactions. :)
     
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  14. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    I heard a story a few years back how the screenplay for Casablanca was presented to four studios as Mike’s Place.
    Only one studio recognized and the others turned it down as too much dialog. I like to watch old movies and I noticed there was a lot of dialog in them. I guess today we crave action more than interchange of thought.
     
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  15. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    Fantastic points.

    I had never heard of blocking as you mention it, but it's a useful expression to know.

    The blocking itself is part of what moves the plot forward (or that's how I'm trying to write it (dunno how skillfully)). The blocking by the antagonists gives up hints about what's going on. The MCs reaction to these situations is also supposed to give the reader more info on who he is and how he thinks without "telling" it. In each dialogue event, the antagonists end up giving up critical information and the MC ends up achieving his motivations by the end of the last scene, but the MC is always left guessing if what he got out of it is true or not. Part of that is to help set up and tie into the next parts of the series.

    You nailed it, though, when you said that it can kill the energy of the story. I did do a lot of "brutal" rewriting, cutting out a bunch of the elements that you are calling blocking, and it is flowing a lot better. I have gone over the whole manuscript twice this week, seeing how the dialogue flows. It's still averaging around 15-20 pages per dialogue event, though, and I'm not sure if some parts of the prose surrounding the dialogue is a little too purple or if it needs to be that way.

    I want to ask for beta readers, but I am going with the rules of the forum and trying to satisfy their rules before going out and asking for that.

    This was a brilliant bit of advice from you that really just slams that nail down.
     
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  16. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    I hope I didn't come off as meaning it's pure dialogue. There are other things happening that breaks it up. The MC leaves the conversation to do other things, then returns and picks it up. Things like that.
     
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  17. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    Interesting. I had never heard that before. Three of the dialogue scenes are essentially fight/torture scenes that end up with the MC squeezing the antagonists for information. Dunno if that breaks up the dialogue in the way that some of the other replies have meant, but the human interaction scenes are not passive scenes (if that's the right way to describe it).
     
  18. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Ok, if you've got things being revealed that move the plot forward, that's something anyway. I wonder if you could remove some of the dialogue and instead just tell (Blasphemy!! :eek: o_O) what was learned and how? Though I can see that maybe the conversations themselves could be important. Maybe you could reveal key parts of each convo and do the rest through telling. Or him explaining it to somebody afterwards (which is sort of telling, but can be done interestingly). I don't know enough about the situation, so all I can do is conjecture (like that the MC is a he).
     
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  19. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    That's something that I really like about hardboiled detective type stories told in the first person, how the MC will narrate parts of the story in their own voice. I haven't been able to get that down, though. I think it really does come down to knowing when to tell rather than show and to what degree.
     
  20. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I'm thinking something like (knowing nothing about your story):

    "So what'd you get outta 'im?"

    "Nuttin' until I swapped his kneecaps. All he had to say was [...]. Trust me—if he knew more, he'd a spilled it. It ain't much, but at least now we know [...]"
     
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  21. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    That's sort of what I'm trying to learn to do. In this story, it's gotta be internal dialogue. He views himself as being two personalities; the remnants of himself before having his memory wiped, and his primary (post-programming) self. It comes through somewhat weakly, though. That's another thing I want to improve.

    In the second book, he gains a "party member" as it were, in the form of a colleague that helps him achieve the goals of that part of the story arc, and in the third part of it, he gains a third "party member". So there will be more opportunities for banter and conversational dialogue.

    This is proving to be more challenging than I anticipated. I'm glad for the challenge. I have a publishing goal of around the 20th of this month, though, and I'm wondering how much I'm missing on my own.
     
  22. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I was about to suggest read a bunch of detective stuff that's written in a style you want to emulate. But if you have a publishing goal of the 20th I guess that's out. I used to read a lot of Keith Laumer, who writes like that, but sort of satirically. I used to try to write like him quite a bit.
     
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  23. NK_UT

    NK_UT Active Member

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    I'm more than game. This is the first novel following FN-528 on his story arc, so there are still 600 pages after this book that need to be taken beyond their second and first draft respectively. I might not hit the target perfectly on this one, but it is my first novel and I have to accept that it's not gonna be perfect. I can always make a second edition later.
     
  24. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Dialogue is a great way to reveal character, and how relationships develop and work. It's a fantastic tool. I wouldn't be without it, as a writer of novels.

    However, there are two things to be aware of:


    1) Unless a large stretch of dialogue is expertly attributed, it can become confusing to read. We MUST know who is speaking the lines—preferably without having to count on our fingers or backtrack. It only takes looking up from the page for a second, or a little lapse in concentration, for a huge wad of dialogue to fall apart for the reader.

    The usual rule-of-thumb is no more than 3 exchanges of speaker without a clear attribution ...and that's if there are only two speakers involved in the conversation. If more characters enter the scene, more frequent attribution becomes essential, and must be carefully engineered. Pronouns can get tricky if there are more than two people, or if the two people are the same sex. "He said" can be useless when there are two or three males in the conversation.

    Action beats are an excellent way to attribute dialogue, as they provide some insight and some visuals to accompany what's being said—without the constant repetition of 'saids' or the creation of more colourfully silly substitutes for 'said.' It's important to learn how to insert action beats, though. The actions need to be presented in the same paragraph as the speaker's words, or everything can fall apart.


    2) Dialogue reads fast. That is often cited as an advantage, which can create a 'page-turner' of a book. However, that's not an advantage if the story rushes by so fast that it becomes a wall of bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla. The reader does need a rest from time to time. Time to mull over what the characters have said, and get re-oriented to the setting, etc. Time to be aware of what the speakers are actually doing as the conversation unfolds. High speed is not always an advantage! You might get to The End quickly, but where have you actually been?
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2020
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  25. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    In a situation like this, that will be largely mitigated by the fact that one person is questioning the other, so it's clear who's saying what. Questions are coming from the MC, answers or attempts to put him off are from the secondary character.
     
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