Mattel doll voice box
Yakking. Gabbing. Chewing the fat. How much hot air are your characters blowing between the covers of your novel? Is your hero the strong, silent type? Do other characters call your heroine “Chatty Cathy” behind her back?
I’ve read three kinds of writers, recently: some who are more comfortable with writing dialogue than descriptive passages, and others who will go to any length to avoid writing dialogue, by describing and paraphrasing most conversations (some of the latter also skimp on descriptively developing the setting, and some don’t). The third kind are the ones who are writing in the first person, and who go overboard with all kinds of dialogue data-dumping and other descriptive ruminations, possibly out of frustration with their not being able to have another point-of-view character, or else at least a limited-omniscient narrator, to pick up the slack.
A higher proportion of description to dialogue may be what qualifies as “literary” writing, which gets a bad rap from the less-is-more philosophy of today’s “show, don’t tell” school of writing gurus, most of whom are known for writing careers built upon screenplays, short stories, and fast-paced crime or action/adventure novellas. I don’t agree with their prejudice against plummy prose, but in other cases, they do have a point: Here’s an example, from Strumpet City, by James Plunkett (1969). This excerpt is from a scene that takes place during and after a dinner party in 1913 Dublin.
‘We would be very sorry to lose you,’ Mrs. Bradshaw said.
‘Perhaps you won’t,’ Father O’Connor said, ‘perhaps I have not the ability.’
It was obvious that he was not anxious to say any more. He looked across at Mr. Bradshaw.
‘Isn’t it time our host obliged?’ he suggested generally.
Mr. Bradshaw rose and looked for suggestions to his wife. She said:
‘The policeman’s song from The Pirates.’
Mr. Yearling laughed and said:
‘Well, that’s topical enough anyway. I see Mr. Larkin has the police going on strike in Belfast too.’
Everybody joined in the joke except Mrs. Bradshaw, who did not follow the reference. Mr. Yearling explained to her that Larkin had spoken to the policemen who were keeping his strikers in order and had told them that they were not being paid enough for their heavy duties. He had roused them to such a pitch of resentment that the police were threatening to go on strike too. (1)
‘That’s why the Chief Secretary asked for the help of the military,’ Mr. Bradshaw put in.
Mrs. Bradshaw said Larkin must be a remarkable strike leader. It all sounded fantastic. (2)
‘Gilbertian,’ Mr. Yearling roared, in sudden inspiration. Everybody laughed aloud and as a result of his aptness Mr. Bradshaw’s rendering of ‘A Policeman’s Lot’ was punctuated all the time by smiles and laughter.
‘We really must be serious,’ Mrs. Bradshaw said when it was over.
‘Very well,’ said Father O’Connor, ‘Why not something from The Yeomen of the Guard.’
‘Yes,’ Mr. Yearling said, ‘why shouldn’t we too introduce the military.’
But Father O’Connor, having acknowledged the quip, went on to deal seriously with the opera he had mentioned. He said he had always felt that The Yeoman of the Guard contained Sullivan’s best music. The rest agreed. Mr. Yearling praised Sullivan’s setting for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Mr. Bradshaw drew attention to the musical excellence of ‘The Lost Chord’. (3)
(1) This paragraph uses the same number of sentences and words that it would have taken to write the conversation as dialogue instead of as a summary. No writing effort or reading time was saved by telling instead of showing that she didn’t understand and what he explained.
(2) It did not save time or ink to omit the quotation marks that would have made this summary be dialogue.
(3) Again, no time or verbiage was saved by writing summary instead of dialogue: How did the priest respond to the quip? His statements about the music, as well as Yearling’s and Bradshaw’s remarks, should have been rendered with quotation marks.
Where does Irish Firebrands fall, on the storytelling continuum? I enjoy reading and writing descriptive language, and in reading my own novel I’m most aware of narrative passages. To find out, at first, I just eyeballed a paperback copy. I estimated that there were about eight pages of dialogue (cumulative) in the first two chapters (24 pages) of the book.
But to come up with a better estimate of how much dialogue there may be in the whole book, I had to look at a virtual manuscript. Using Word Count, Replace, and the Calculator, I performed some techie prestidigitation, and came up with the following statistics:
Paragraphs of dialogue: approx. 4,254 (a paragraph of dialogue may be a sentence, a fragment, or a group of sentences)
Proportion of dialogue paragraphs: 74%
Looked at in zoom-out mode, the red-tagged dialogue appears to be reasonably well distributed throughout.
Is there a “right” amount of dialogue? Perhaps not, although to get away with “too little” dialogue, one would have to be channeling the poet-novelist Siegfried Sassoon (left). And having too many quotation marks and too little description would probably mean we have a play on our hands, instead of a novel. Nothing wrong with that, although some people don’t care for reading plays. To avoid having to put in all kinds of missing exposition, summary, indirect dialogue, and other narrative stuff, one may consider reformatting and publishing the work for stage or screen, instead. Playwrights are Authors, too.
NB: Incidentally, although at 199,230 the Smashwords estimator supplies the highest word count (even higher than at NaNoWriMo), I came up with about 188,721 words of story in Irish Firebrands (excluding front and back matter, chapter headings, scene/POV section break markers, and isolated punctuation marks, such as ellipses and dashes, which are often counted as words). I’ve no idea how many words I really wrote, or that my characters say, but I am fairly certain that there are 1,078,042 keystrokes between the covers.
Thanks to ehbates, whose blog BumblesBooks inspired this post. :)