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Talking about Talking. Dialogue Part 1.

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Depending on the genre in which you are writing, dialogue comprises a massive portion of any novel’s content. It is used to move along the plot, develop character, and emotion, and create or resolve conflicts. It needs to be done well, for a novel to work. Examples of famous novels in history and their proportion of dialogue show just how much dialogue we read:

- Arthur Conan Doyle's 1892 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has 46.95% characters within quoted strings.

- Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula has 47.46%.

- HP Lovecraft’s body of work is about 10 %. (Thank God. His dialogue is painfully bad.)

- The Great Gatsby has 51.32%.

- The Da Vinci Code has 29.59%.

In case you are tempted to think it is genre dependent as far as I can tell it isn’t. Even inside of a genre the numbers can vary widely. Look at some modern examples from fantasy:

- 37% dialogue in The Final Empire (Mistborn #1).

- The Last Unicorn, which scores a whopping 63%.

- 13% dialogue for The Wizard of Earthsea.


Even the number of speakers in a novel vary widely. TheWizard of Earthsea has less than ten speaking characters. The Lord of the Rings has over 75.

Dialogue appears to run around 33% of a given novel with a typical range of 25-50 %. Given how much the dialogue makes up, it seems only right that we should talk about the good and bad types of dialogue. Over the next few weeks, we will explore good dialogue, and bad dialogue, with examples as well as types of bad dialogue we want to avoid.

We should define good and bad dialogue.

Good dialogue: Conversation which achieves moving the plot, character, or theme of a story forward, preferably more than one at a time, while not relaying heavily on the aspects of bad dialogue which is below.

Bad dialogue: Dialogue which fails to move the story forward, discover aspects of a character or setting, and which used one or more of the following poor structures:

- Melodrama.

- Excessive or unwarranted exposition.

- "Butler and maid structures," also called "as you know… structures."

- Falls out of sync with the setting and time period

- Fails to sound natural to the setting and characters.

Good dialogue sounds natural, has conflict and conflict resolution. It hides meanings, reveals meanings, pushes world views on others, reveals a characters world views, coaxes behaviors, hides behaviors, tries to convince people of things, or learn them. There is action in the words.

Bad dialogue tells the reader something they need to know. Bad dialogue sounds like a soap opera, where everything is very on the nose without subtlety. Good dialogue tells other characters things they need to know, and the reader is there for the story.

Next week we’ll look at examples and dig into melodrama, period / setting voice, exposition, and telling too much or too early through dialogue. Start thinking about good and bad dialogue examples you have seen in books and movies. Why are they good and why are they bad to you? Do they fit one of the examples above?

Until then, always remember, writers write. So go get writing.

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