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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does Your WIP Have Too Much Dialogue?

I’ve been looking over some of my much-rejected early novels recently and discovered they have something in common with a lot of other unpublished fiction: way too much dialogue. They’re too LOUD. The characters need to shut up already and get on with the story.

And yet, in all the classic how-to writing books, we’re urged to put in, “more scenes! more dialogue!”

Here’s my theory of why that is: A lot of classic books on writing, like Strunk and White came out before the era of TV. They are full of warnings against the author intrusion and diary-like musings that come from imitating those wordy Victorian novels whose purpose was to fill as many long winter nights as possible.

But most contemporary writers—at least those not yet eligible for Medicare—had their first exposure to fiction via movies and TV. Even if you were lucky enough to have parents who read books to you, the tele/screenplay format probably got cemented into your brain by constant exposure.

That means the stories in your head tend to scroll by like episodes of Law and Order, rather than chapters of The Last Days of Pompeii. Most contemporary writers don’t need warnings against addressing readers as “O Best Beloved,” or waxing poetic on the subject of French pastries or cracked gold bowls.

But we do need to beware of writing novels that read like bloated screenplays.

One of my favorite handbooks on writing is agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages . (I was disappointed that in Nathan Bransford’s recent post on the most important books for writers, none of the 200+ comments mentioned Lukeman. I think he's a must-read for anybody trying to publish fiction these days.)

Lukeman's book gave me my first wake-up call about overdone dialogue. He wrote, "Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly…it is to the writer what the veto is to the President…if you overuse it, people will resent you for it."

Whoa! I’d been bullying my readers without realizing it.

I thought about his caveat last week when I read a story in the New Yorker that had no dialogue at all: The TV by Ben Loory. Seemed a little weird--but the next day Publisher’s Lunch announced Mr. Loory had sold a collection of short stories for some serious cash. (Yeah. A short story collection. Who does that? Congratulations, Ben!)

So is dialogue going out of style completely? Perhaps with the MFA set, but I'm pretty sure commercial books still need a healthy dose. However, we need to be increasingly careful it's not over-done.

I believe the newbie’s tendency to create overly chatty characters may be why so many agents caution against opening a novel with dialogue. The problem may not be the opening line itself, but the amount of blabbering that follows. If your opening pages look like a script, they probably won’t be read.

It’s not a bad idea to do another run-through of your WIP, keeping an eye out for these dialogue no-nos:

1) Big chunks of dialogue with no action. Don’t turn your characters into talking heads. Move them around. Let them do something. Feel. Think. You don’t have any actors to do this work for you.

2) Too many unattributed lines. If the reader loses track of who’s talking and has to go back and puzzle it out, she gets annoyed.

3) Reader-feeder: This is when your characters tell each other stuff they already know in order to fill in backstory for the benefit of the reader. “As you know, Bob, our grandfather was bitten by a radioactive spider…”

4) Showing off: Yes, that ten page scene shows how perfectly you’ve captured the patois of young stockbrokers in their native habitat, but does it actually further the plot?

5) Too much realism. Yeah, in real life, people do have these conversations:

"Gonna go to the…?"
"Dunno, you?"
"Gonna, um…?"

I'm bored already, aren't you? This is why we read fiction.

For more tips on writing dialogue, Roni Griffin at Fiction Groupie had a great post on dialogue last Friday--a must read.



Blogger Anna said...

Great post. I love dialogue (reading and writing it) but all the things you listed can be dangerous pitfalls. #4 is something I see a lot of. I think people have the false impression that if characters are talking, that means something is happening. But unless the characters are amazingly entertaining, every bit of dialogue needs to actually MEAN something (tricky as that might be).

April 18, 2010 at 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Susan Young Tuttle said...

Anne, well said. I especially resent having to go back and figure out who said what, when. Writers work so hard to make dialogue sound natural and reveal character - it's so tempting to show off by sticking in scenes that show off our hard earned expertise rather than advancing the story. The best dialogue does both, and is also sprinkled into the action. Those of us who see our stories unfold as though on a movie screen need to remember to put in the action, also. Great food for thought! That's why I love this blog so much... I always learn what I need to know.

April 18, 2010 at 12:37 PM  
Blogger Piedmont Writer said...

You are a whiz-bang that's for sure. Very timely post for me, I've been thinking I have way too much dialogue but it's still a first draft so I have time to clean it up.

Thanks much for this post.

April 18, 2010 at 2:41 PM  
Anonymous Terry Gaalanoy said...

Anne:Don't agree. If you're talking about"literary" works--darlings of the crirtics and loss leaders for the publishers--then maybe a book filled with thick black pages of type might be of momentary note.But the heavy-hitting millions of "commercial book"sales for the 21st Century movers like Grisham, Patterson, Steele ,McDonald, even back to the earlier dialogue popularizers ,Hemingway,Fitzgerald all knew that dialogue is the writers' most powerful triple-threat device: Unlike lifeless narrative, dialogue (a) creates character (b) dramatizes conflict, (c) carries the story forward. Most importantly properly done,it eviscerates the crashing boredom of the over-wroughten, over-written over-wearisome ghosts of literature past still visited upon us by the yesteryears yearners of the literarature of the past posse.

April 18, 2010 at 4:00 PM  
Blogger Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Lots of things to think about, great post! And I appreciate you linking to me. :)

April 18, 2010 at 4:47 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi Anne! Thanks for the congratulations! It's funny, but until I read your post, it never occurred to me that I hadn't used any dialogue in that story. I usually use more, I think, though I may be wrong. I come from screenwriting, where dialogue is used sparingly *because* it carries so much weight. I think in general there are no rules; it's just a matter of how best to accomplish your goal. A story about a guy losing his mind, for instance, is going to be mostly interior, while a relationship story is going to be more talk-based. (Nothing mind-opening in that statement, I know, but it's true.)

Anyway, thanks again! I hope you are well.

Ben Loory

April 18, 2010 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wow! A New Yorker writer right here on my little blog! Thanks for visiting, Ben, and I'll be on the lookout for your new book. Your story was amazing.

Terry, as I said, dialogue is still important, especially in commercial fiction, but those brought up on TV have to remember we're writing novels and not endlessly long plays.

Thanks for your comments everybody. I've been wrestling with Lukeman's caveats about too much dialogue for a while. At first I really disagreed, but I'm beginning to see his point, at least in terms of my own work.

April 18, 2010 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Great and informative post, as usual. Personally, I glance through a novel before I buy to make sure there is what I consider and adequate amount of dialogue. I need dialogue to "know" the characters. But then, I tried reading a recommended Grafton the other night but, after five straight pages of uninterrupted dialogue, I put it down. Boring! A delicate balance is required.

April 18, 2010 at 9:11 PM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Seems to me, there's another key besides amount (Too many notes!) in dialogue, and that is the dialogue itself. Been watching "Justified" on FX. It's based on an Elmore Leonard story though he's not the screen writer. BUT the writing is Elmoreish; limited, clever, revealing, unexpected, droll, all of which makes listening carefully a must and all of which makes the show so much fun.

April 19, 2010 at 6:13 AM  
Blogger Lady Glamis said...

Great post and great things to think about! I like to think I use a healthy balanced dose of both, but in my novels I can get carried away, especially in first drafts.

April 19, 2010 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

Great post. I learned this the hard way when I kept getting “Prune this down” comments from someone in my writing group. I was like, “But that’s HILARIOUS dialogue! It can’t go!” and the commenter (whose critiques for me are usually almost always right on) said, “Yes, but it doesn’t further the plot or the character. And when you don’t do those two things, it isn’t humorous.”

April 19, 2010 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Churadogs--yes! Isn't that show brilliant? The screenwriters have caught that Elmoreishness perfectly. Leonard is one of my literary heroes: the guru of less is more. And bone-dry wit.

Sierra, it sounds as if you write the way I do--getting so carried away with the one-liners that I forget about the plot.

Christine, Grafton is one of those writers who confuse me by dropping tags. I never counted, but yeah--five pages of dialogue is what I'm talking about. Way too much.

Lady Glam, Those conversations just flow in the first drafts, don't they? Writing them is soooo much fun. But reading them? Not so much.

April 19, 2010 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger Jill Wheeler said...

Love the first line of your MS!

April 19, 2010 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

Loads to think about. I sometimes worry I put too much dialogue in mine also.


April 19, 2010 at 11:04 PM  
Blogger SAMUEL PARK said...

Wow--great post. I for one happen to love reading plays, so I don't mind the excessive dialogue. Dialogue, interesting, is "easier" to write, though really harder to pull off. Thanks for the post.

April 20, 2010 at 11:09 PM  
Blogger Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Certainly agree. I heard a self-pubbed author read several pages of her book and it contained nothing but dialogue with no action or narrative whatsoever--talking heads.

On the opposite side, a really good writer can convey an awful lot through dialogue.

April 21, 2010 at 7:23 AM  
Blogger Jan Markley said...

Good post. It's all about balance and using dialogue to move the story forward.

April 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM  
Blogger AderuMoro said...

Goodness, this was written a year ago, but it still ought to apply today. In WIPs, one of my biggest peeves is that there is too much dialogue, and yet just the other day I received criticism for not writing ENOUGH dialogue.

Anyway I'm enjoying reading your blog while I ought to be studying for my upcoming exams, haha. This is much more worth my time.

April 18, 2011 at 8:27 PM  

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