The importance of dialogue

It’s fairly obvious that a book without dialogue would be a pretty dull read … but since this blog tends to focus on romance, I’ll restrict my musings to that genre or we’ll be here all day!

I talked in an earlier post about how character is key – see  Without two well-rounded, believable people, a romance can only fall flat on its face.

In forming your characters and making the reader care about them, dialogue plays such a huge part. You can describe what’s going through your character’s mind as much as you like, but dialogue can do so much more, especially in a romance. It makes your characters real, allowing their true personality to shine through. The way they interact with each other in a conversation (or argument!) shows exactly where they’re at in their relationship.

But it does have its dangers for the unwary writer.  

DSC_7835_cm (Dreaming with Book)Dialogue is often used to move the plot forward without wading through a lengthy explanation in prose – show, don’t tell being the mantra – but the writer must be careful with this. It can really jar when one character is telling another character something they should clearly already know, so it becomes obvious the conversation is purely for the benefit of enlightening the reader as to what’s going on.

It’s not only how the dialogue is used – it’s also how it’s written. The writer must develop a good ear. It seems easy as your fingers skim across the keyboard – it’s just a conversation, isn’t it? We engage in those every day. How hard can it be?

Harder than it looks! Edit carefully. Read it out loud. If it sounds at all stilted, change it. As a reader, I’ll make allowances for a different writing style or the fact that the author is of a different nationality, but at the end of the day, if the dialogue sounds unrealistic, it’s the one thing guaranteed to put me off the book quickly.

Now, this next admission may raise your eyebrows a little.

I actually analyse my writing to ensure I have enough dialogue and that some chapters aren’t horribly uneven with (or without) it.

I aim for a ratio of 60:40 of stretches with dialogue to stretches without. I’ll settle for 50:50. The overall ratio for the entire book must be near my target. If any chapter falls well below (70:30 or even 80:20), then I will look at that chapter and see if there is a way I can move things around or introduce more dialogue. If that’s not possible and the chapter either side has plenty, then I’ll leave it be.

This may seem a pernickety practice, but I find it really helpful. Heroes and heroines who spend too much time in their own heads can become pretty dull pretty quickly.

What do you think? How much importance does dialogue hold for you as a reader? Leave a comment, I’d love to know!


4 thoughts on “The importance of dialogue

  1. DenaRogers says:

    Very interesting post, Helen. I’ve never really given a lot of thought about how much dialogue plays into chapters. I mean, obviously as a writer it’s important, but as far as in ratio’s or anything that in depth, I’ve never done it. I’ll admit at times it can be a struggle to work it out. I’m guilty of one of my characters asking a question and then the other going into a long debate over the question or getting distracted by the surroundings, etc. By the time they finish up their initial meanderings, the initial question got lost. I’ve heard other authors actually printing out their manuscript and highlighting the dialogue and prose in different colors to ensure they are in the right proportion. That seems like a lot of work, but maybe a little more work will also be that added kick that turns a story from good to great. Another thing to add to my list of things to think about. Thanks!

    • Helen Pollard says:

      Hi Dena. I’m sure not everyone would do this but it really works for me – simply because in a romance you can find yourself wittering on and on about what’s in the heroine’s head, what she thinks about the hero, what her back story is … and suddenly you’ve written pages without a speck of spoken word. It doesn’t have to take too long and I feel it really helps me space the chapters well.

  2. Jannette Spann says:

    I agree with you on the dialogue vs. narrative. To much narrative gets boring in a hurry, but ad some sharp dialogue and the story moves along at a good pace. On the other front, dialogue without narrative to ground it can turn into talking heads. There’s a happy mixture, and if an author hits it right they’ve got my attention.

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