Dialogue and Description: The Delicate Balance

One of the biggest problems I encounter when giving advice to other writers is the problem of how much dialogue is too much without ample description to back up the verbiage.

The truth is that many amateur writers either lay on the description until they become like Charles Dickens or they write page after page of two people talking to one another without any action in between lines.  I am a firm believer in the “show don’t tell” rule.  However, there is such a thing as not telling your reader enough to know what is happening in your narrative, flooding their head with line after line of dialogue that doesn’t really further the action.

It is highly important to make sure that the words spoken by characters are anchored in a realistically described environment.  There are many ways to do this, but one has to ask themselves a few questions when revising a manuscript:

  • Percentage of Dialogue/Description – If over 60% of your narrative is dialogue, you might want to consider anchoring the dialogue in some descriptive details, namely more concrete verbs and adjectives.  If the description is the other way around, you might want to consider chopping out any description that is dragging the story down or that can be revealed in the dialogue.
  • Cut, Cut, Cut – Read your manuscript like it is being seen by you for the first time.  Are there any lines of dialogue that are not driving the story along, but simply mindless chatter that is bogging down the narrative?  Cut it out.  If you describe things that are common items in the natural world, cut them as well.

The main point here is that you have to think about your narrative as if it is to be read by a common person with a 6th grade reading level if you want to move copies of your book.  Think outside the box.  Perhaps if you have too much dialogue, then the story probably needs to be written in first person to hang on to the internal monologues that your character is outwardly verbalizing.  Let someone read your manuscript and don’t get upset if they criticize it.  Listen to them.  The average reader is going to let you know what works and what doesn’t.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Dialogue and Description: The Delicate Balance

  1. Stop me if I mentioned this before, but I recall reading a book in which two characters engaged in a 3 or 4 page talking-head conversation immediately following a shootout that resulted in an unknown assassin being killed. The dead guy was lying at their feet, and somehow a piano fell over a balcony and smashed him (or something like that). No one called the police, checked the body, said, “Holy shit, what just happened? We had a shootout in the house and a piano fell on the assassin,” or any of that. At least be upset that your expensive piano was wrecked.

    The moral of my story: It’s a good idea to break up 4 pages of dialogue with a pulse check of the dead guy or maybe by picking up some of the sheet music that got scattered.

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