Voices Inside Your Head.

Mattel doll voice box

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.[1] 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. [2]

‘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. [3]

‘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’.[4]

[1] How was it “obvious”? Let us in on the secret. Punctuation (en dashes, em dashes, ellipses) can indicate hesitant speech. Also, some non-dialogue description can be appropriate here. 

[2] 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.

[3] It did not save time or ink to omit the quotation marks that would have made this summary be dialogue.

[4] 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: 5,716
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.

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)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 the one used 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. 🙂


Filed under Literature, Reading, Writing

12 responses to “Voices Inside Your Head.

  1. I think the biggest thing to me that determines the right amount of dialogue for a piece is the amount of action in it. Action, by its nature, can take up more real estate than dialogue and a heavy-action book can slant away from a high proportion of it.

    Otherwise, though, I’d agree with your over-all thought that more dialogue is generally better than less, especially if the replacement text is just glossing over a section of dialogue with no saved space.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like writing dialogue and I tend to use it quite a lot. But I also like descriptive passages, and for me it’s important to find a good balance between them. Pages of virtually uninterrupted dialogue could easily get tedious and would suggest some fat in need of cutting. As you say, there’s really no right or wrong – it’s all about the best way to tell the particular story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all, “techie prestidigitation” cracked me up! 😀 (Oddly, I’ve been trying to work the words “prestidigitation” and “pugilism” into my daily speech at home over the past few days just to see who would notice. No one has yet to comment.)

    I think your roughly three-fourths dialog is spot-on. However, I wonder, are you counting only actual dialog between characters, or would you also count internal dialog or thoughts to one’s self?

    You definitely have a head for data and fact-finding, my friend! 🙂 Very impressive, indeed. Excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What I counted was spoken dialogue that the computer located by the existence of quotation marks. Internal dialogue and ruminations (expressed in italics) are devices that give the narration more variety than just always doing straight descriptive paraphrasing: Boy, what a control freak! is more interesting than, She thought he was a control freak.

      Thanks, Rachel! Your comments always give me more to think about! 🙂 Because “Irish Firebrands” is a psychological novel, there’s a considerable amount of rumination. I’ll have to run another search routine, to find out just how much italicized stuff there is, in the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Right, and even though Boy, what a control freak! (which I don’t know how to italicize in these comments) is a thought, it is like talking to yourself, just not out loud, right? 🙂 I’ll be anxious to see your results if you blog about that. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Internal dialogue” such as a rumination is “talking to yourself,” and unspoken mental “replies” that may be written into a POV character’s part (such as Lana’s irritated thoughts during her conversation with Dillon in Ch. 8 of Irish Firebrands), don’t constitute real dialogue (even the back-and-forth thought-war that takes place inside Dillon’s head at the end of Ch. 27 doesn’t qualify), because real dialogue is action that occurs between different characters.

          Mental stuff is not active, which can make it difficult to be engaging for a reader. I’ve noticed this among inexperienced writers who try to write in the first person, but who are uncomfortable with writing active scenes, or who are frustrated with the limitations of the first-person POV, and so they try to sneak in data-dumping, or even some omniscient narration, in the guise of the protagonist’s “thoughts.” These writers often struggle with how to make the time the protagonist spends alone to be interesting, and so they window-dress his ruminations with some sort of generic physical activity that doesn’t move the story, such as by making him get up and go to a coffee-shop, but when he gets there, all he does is sit in a booth by himself and think. That’s not action.

          This is a problem because these writers have no clear concept of the psychology that’s involved in rumination, nor have they the skill to write page upon page of long, unbroken paragraphs that are interesting and don’t confuse the reader with labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness maundering. Siegfried Sassoon could pull off writing maximum rumination with minimum dialogue because he was also a poet, but even he got better with experience.

          Liked by 1 person

          • LOL! That’s cute (about Siegfried). When I have a character with too much time alone, I still try to break up their internal thoughts with either talking to themselves or even to a baby, a pet, or even a photograph in a one-sided conversation. I just don’t care for the actual aesthetic look of too much italics on the page.

            I am actually having quite a time with one particular story and how to “fix” it as far as gauging the amount of necessary backstory and one issue with the MC’s POV. But I think (or rather I hope) I at least have the ruminations to an interesting minimum.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston books define the fictional memoir genre, although the third book is the best of the three. The only new writer I know of who comes close to mastering the style is blogger Peter Wells, in his Living Life Backwards.

              I read a rather lame novel by a “bestselling” author published by one of the Big Five, which had one whole chapter italicized. “Italics abuse” on that scale did nothing to add emphasis to the chapter, and it certainly didn’t help the book as a whole.

              Liked by 1 person

        • If you want to italicize something in comments, immediately precede the word with this group of keystrokes: “less than symbol” i “greater than symbol” and immediately follow the word with: “less than symbol” / i “greater than symbol” but don’t put spaces between the characters. (I didn’t type the symbols because they have their own meaning in HTML, and they might mess up the rest of the message.)

          Liked by 1 person

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