Are Your Characters Talking Too Much?

Are Your Characters Talking Too Much?

Dialogue drives both narrative and character development. The key for creative writers is including just enough dialogue to meet those needs and no more. The last thing you want is to have your characters talking too much.

Committed A Memoir of the Artist's Road by Patrick RossMany novelists approach a scene by writing until they feel they have included sufficient dialogue to meet their goals. It’s an additive process, like 3D printing. While writing Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road I took the opposite approach, like a sculptor carving away at stone.

What do I mean by that? Well, my raw material included video of more than forty creatives–musicians, photographers, actors, and of course novelists–whom I had interviewed on a 2010 cross-country U.S. road trip. The memoir tells the story of how my encounters with these artists inspired me to return to an art-committed life, despite a family legacy of mental illness connected with creative pursuits. Each scene’s first draft began with a transcript of the conversation. I then started cutting and polishing, looking to convey just enough to advance the narrative lines of the story and the reader’s understanding of the narrator.

How to Judge the Worth of Your Dialogue on a Spectrum

How did I make those choices?

Let’s think of the use of dialogue in a story–fiction or creative nonfiction–as a spectrum:

Are Your Characters Talking Too Much? - dialogue spectrum
The two ends of the spectrum are easy to address:

Cut the Scene Entirely

Does having characters engage in a particular conversation advance the story? If not, cut.

Include Every Line of Dialogue

A creative writer should never do this. Disagree? Record the next conversation at your dinner table and play it back while doing the dishes. You’ll be startled at how much extraneous material is found in even the most erudite conversation.

Every scene that made it into Committed operates in the middle of the spectrum, as follows:

Fully Realized Scene

Only about a half-dozen creatives in Committed advanced the narrative sufficiently to merit a fully robust scene. Where they appeared in the story factored into that decision, but sometimes I needed the reader to not just hear what these artists were saying but to get to know them; that required enough dialogue and action to more fully convey their true natures.

One occurs early on, when seasoned Vermont printmaker Sabra Field warns me that an art-committed life is not an easy one. Another occurs near the end of the book, when Idaho singer/songwriter Rochelle Smith sums up the lesson of many artists interviewed, namely that I need to “tell my story.”

Handful of Dialogue

Readers meet several of the artists in Committed in abbreviated scenes with a handful of quotes framed with summary dialogue. I found Birmingham, Alabama, photographer Marc Bondarenko fascinating, but only two parts of his interview advanced the narrative lines of the book, his love of motorcycles and his insight that spending time with another creative can spark a temporary connection. Much of Providence, Rhode Island, film director Eileen Boarman’s interview didn’t make it into the final book because the conversation occurs in a larger scene where the action taking place served the story better.

Present-Tense Summary

Committed is written in the present tense; the reader experiences the road trip in real time with the narrator. In some cases the reader “meets” an artist but never hears the artist speak. This happens because we are in the narrator’s head, and he tells us what he’s hearing, as well as the thoughts those words are triggering. I chose to use this technique with Portland, Maine, photographer Brian Fitzgerald for structural reasons. He appears in the third scene in Committed; the first two featured fairly robust scenes of dialogue. Feedback in an MFA workshop made me realize I couldn’t have each chapter follow a predictable pattern: arrive in town, conduct full-blown interview, leave.

Past-Tense Summary

How does past-tense summary work in a present-tense book? It has the narrator telling the reader, “So we’re here together on the road again. An hour ago I interviewed this artist, and here’s what you missed.” I was forced to take an interesting conversation with Salt Lake City, Utah, jazz singer and children’s book author Wendy Bradshaw and reduce it to a past-tense paragraph because she appears near the end of the book, and her insights, while welcome, had already been provided by other interview subjects.

You may have seen a 3D printer in action. If so, you know how long it can take to make layer after layer as it builds to a fully realized object. There are also many hours of inputting details into computer software before the manufacturing begins. I found it easier with Committed to go old-school and sculpt. Michelangelo claimed that when he sculpted he was liberating already existing art from within the stone. I took that approach in first writing a fully realized scene and then reducing it down to its core.

Tell me your opinion: What challenges do you face when writing dialogue and avoiding characters talking too much?

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About Patrick Ross | @PatrickRWrites

Patrick Ross is a professional storyteller. A longtime journalist, blogger, and creative writer, his first book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road was published in October 2014 by Black Rose Writing. For four years he has blogged about writing, creativity, and living an art-committed life on The Artist's Road. He earned an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing with The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and online with The Loft Literary Center. His wife and two teenage children tolerate his need to honor his muse through writing, which is particularly impressive since they often show up in his prose.


  1. K.M., thank you so much for hosting me on your excellent blog! And how can I not like that fantastic photo you chose for the banner?

  2. Sheryl Dunn says

    This post came at exactly the right time for me, since I’m plotting my WIP and specifically want to have more dialogue than in the last project.

    Great reminder that when I’m trying to have more dialogue and less interior monologue, I should still be very conscious of scene structure.

    Thank you!

  3. I am usually the opposite of a sculptor. I write less than needed and fill it out in the revision phase. Therefore too much dialogue is not a problem I encounter often.

    And by the way Mr. Ross, your book sounds very interesting.

    • Thank you, Robert (oh, and Patrick is fine!). I think a lot of writers take your approach of building up. I think it’s useful as a thought exercise, though, to consider all that could be there and then start building up. Worth a try some time.

      • I agree. In the past I was advised against starting with a big chunk of writing and whittling it down to core material, but I think its something I should look into more.

  4. This is an interesting post! I do hesitate, though, to say that a creative writer should *never* include every line of dialogue. (I hesitate to say a creative writer should *never* do anything.) Certainly a full conversation in real life is filled with dialogue that is, at best, dramatically unnecessary, but it’s definitely possible to invent a start-to-finish conversation in which every line of dialogue is included and necessary.

    That said, in most situations you don’t need that. You can usually skip hellos and goodbyes. You can usually summarize prolonged explanations, or statements that repeat information we’ve already heard as direct dialogue. One of the keys, I think, is remembering that the real audience for every conversation is the reader. The reader doesn’t need to hear the same thing twice, or parts of conversation already implied, or moments that are simply dull on the page. If you’re genuinely including all the dialogue in a given scene, there needs to be a good reason for it.

    • Harrison, thank you for slapping down the absolute; I fully agree there should be no absolutes in creative writing.

      You remind me of a lecture I heard in my MFA program where the instructor read a passage from Tolstoy (apologies I can’t remember what passage or novel). It was pretty much a full conversation between two characters, with odd asides and other such inanities. The instructor said Tolstoy made a point of having all of that in there because it showed clearly that the two characters were talking past each other. Of course he shared this example to note that, on occasion, this type of approach works. He did not say we should run out and use it in every scene, however!

      As to your point on redundancy, I hate it when in certain serial TV shows they do the soap-opera technique of having a scene where two characters essentially repeat a conversation they already had, I guess to stretch out the story or because they think we’re not paying attention. Aaargh!

    • It’s interesting to note, however, that the best of the best can always break the rules with great success. Both Dickens and Conrad use excruciatingly detailed dialog; as you progress through their stories, you feel like you know the characters intimately because of the minutiae.

  5. thomas h cullen says

    A very relevant topic, Patrick. Example, I do respect the show ‘Masters of Sex’ – a well-intentioned show; all too often however watching it, I’d blankly experience hearing its relentless dialogue….in contrast to a show such as the recently discontinued ‘Dracula’:

    In actual fact, I don’t think that dialogue on its own means its effect. Overall context, overall tone and texture of a film or show substantially contribute to its effect.

    Books are rather exempt from this rule, I consider.

    • Hi thomas, it is interesting to consider the way dialogue impacts a print work rather than an audiovisual one. I’ve never written a screenplay, but I’ve been asked to edit them in workshops before and I always find myself a bit befuddled. What’s clear when you read a screenplay (or a play) is that dialogue is the framework on which the story is built; that does not have to be the case with a book.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Which makes perfect sense.

      • Screenplays are interesting in this respect. Dialogue is definitely more the emphasis, but screenwriters are often taught to try to keep scenes at three pages or less (which typically means three minutes or less). So there, too, you don’t have a lot of complete start-to-finish exchanges. You have some, but more often, you’re cutting to a conversation already in progress, then cutting again at a dramatically appropriate moment.

        I would imagine plays, though, to include far more complete conversations, as you can’t really do all that cutting.

        (Enter a playwright to tell me why I’m wrong.)

  6. I love your line graph, Patrick 🙂 I’m VERY into charts and lists, for sure. As for me, you already know I can be on the more superfluous side ;), so typically I will have more than what’s needed and I sculpt away. Thanks for this!

    • Hi Donna,

      I’m not very good at making graphics, I’m afraid. I made that in Word with the “Table” feature, then copied it into Paint and saved it as a .jpg for K.M. Not exactly splashy, but it conveyed my point! 🙂

      Always good to chat with a fellow sculptor!


  7. Hi Patrick, and thanks for this informative and educational post on dialogue, something I struggle with. Your graph brings great clarity as do your follow-on descriptions. I’ve been under the radar since late September and haven’t written much since then. Every intention is to get back to it, and dialogue is an area where I need some work in my memoir wip. Good to see you here at K.M.’s, one of my favorite online writers’ haunts.

    K.M., thanks for hosting Patrick today!

    • Hi Sherrey,

      Good to have you back and about, and kudos on your new ebook, which I need to download! You’ve read COMMITTED so you know this, but I made far less use of dialogue when recreating scenes from my past, in large part because I would have to recreate it from memory (although Zinser, Gutkind and others say that is perfectly acceptable for memoir writers as you know). My opening scene features dialogue, but it might not surprise you to know that I both made notes of that incident after it happened and that I interviewed two witnesses–my two children–to make sure I had the details right. (My daughter corrected my memory on one logistical aspect.)

  8. When I sit down and write dialog, it seems to come out exactly the way a normal conversation would. This is an issue, because, like you said, much of it is not necessary. I find that I have to have someone read through my scenes. Otherwise, I have what is in my head and that is dangerous.

  9. I think, Patrick, you had a unique situation with all the ready-made dialog from your recordings. I can see why you compared your process to that of a sculptor cutting away excess stone. Once in a while I’ve had a character who tries to talk too much, but not often. I think I’m sensitive to boredom, so when I read over what I’ve written and start to feel bored with either too much dialog or too much summary, I change it up. I guess I mainly go by feel. Not very scientific I’m afraid.

    • I can’t think of a better editor meter than boredom. When I had a first draft of COMMITTED, I was asked to do a reading from the manuscript. I picked a section and started practicing; some of the passages were boring me so I decided I’d skip them when reading. Then I said “Wait a minute, if I don’t want to read them aloud, why should I make anyone else read them?” And the manuscript became shorter…

  10. Thanks so much for all the helpful advice!!!
    It helps so much!

  11. I always feel like I have too much dialogue in my stories. Thanks for helping me out!

  12. thanks for sharing your method!


  1. […] be saying? Fitting dozens of interviews into a tightly written memoir requires making choices; I shared what I learned about crafting dialogue with with readers of K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become […]

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