Is Your Character Talking Too Much?

In real life, most people have a tendency to talk about what they’re going to do before they do it. We’re lying on the couch of an evening, talking to the cat purring on our stomachs, and we say something like, “I really should take that trash out, shouldn’t I?” We may even have to say it a couple times before we work up the energy to dump the cat and haul ourselves over the garbage can. We’re even more inclined to talk about what needs doing when it’s something a little more intricate than changing the Glad Bags. And there’s nothing wrong with that—in real life or in our fiction—unless we or our characters are doing nothing but talking.

Readers love dialogue. What they don’t love is when our characters spend pages—or even chapters—talking, talking, talking about what they’re going to do, instead of just doing it. I recently read a fantasy that spent literally half the book with a professor character lecturing his pupil, at length and in depth, about the ins and outs of this particular fantasy world. If I’d signed up for a college course, I wouldn’t have minded this. But after a couple hundred pages of this in a novel, I was bored and ready for the character to put his money where his mouth was.

Of course, as writers, we must find a balance that allows our characters to present logical dialogue that explains to readers both crucial information and the characters’ reactions, motivations, and goals in relation to that information. But just like Chekhov’s gun in the First Act, we have to put our info to good use. The characters eventually have to act upon it. Otherwise, they have no good reason to talk about it. And if they do act upon it, we have to determine whether the action isn’t capable of superseding the need for the original informative dialogue and/or simply making it repetitious. There’s a good reason most stories cut away right when the character whispers, “Now here’s what we’re going to do…”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Does your character spend more time talking or doing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. You got bored after hundreds of pages? You lasted longer than I would have. 😉

    I agree with your vlog. No one wants to read about what a character says his will or might do. They want action, results.

  2. I’m a patient reader. 😉 Also OCD. 😉 😉 Fantasy (among other genres) presents unique challenges, since readers will likely have to be educated about a completely foreign world. But there are definitely better ways to accomplish this.

  3. Anonymous says

    Somebody said (I think it was Chuck Wendig) – “The character says some ****, then does some **** then says some **** about the **** he just did”. I like to try to keep it to that if I can. LOL!
    Lisa Pedersen (@Urbanmilkmaid)

  4. Like Lorna, I am awestruck that you made it to page 200 of the lecturing professional novel. That’s admirable stamina!

    My characters are a chatty bunch, but they spend as much time doing as talking, and I frequently go back and rewrite dialogue into action. Sometimes we just have to use the mute button!

  5. That’s probably why I enjoy mystery and political thrillers more than anything… it’s action stacked on action many times… the dialogue is usually good, and necessary, but you don’t get anywhere without the action. 🙂 I have a hard time getting through books that are to languid — probably why I can’t read strict romance books often. Romantic suspense, any day. 🙂

    Great vlog today. 🙂

  6. @Lisa: Sounds like Wendig! Prep, action, sequel. That’s how it should go.

    @Kern: I’m seriously OCD about my reading. I have a hard time giving up on even the worst of books. But I did start skimming in this one!

    @Liberty: As I said earlier, fantasy tends to be a talky genre. But there’s good ways and bad ways to go about it. The pros know how to get their info across without resorting to info dumps.

  7. A lot of dialog can be used as a tool in a couple of ways: The character can talk and plan what they are going to do, map it out extensively, and then it be a total lie. The entertainment comes from comparing reality with the character’s mental fantasy. Which brings up the second productive thing of extensive dialog: indicating how the character’s mind actually works. Quite frequently, what people actually do differs from what their mind thinks. I have had middle school readers tell me when they were reading the early manuscripts to slow things down and expose more of the character’s inner thoughts or as they put it, “tell me how the character thinks.” Of course, I write to a very specific audience of middle school kids and if I were writing for the mass market, well, you can’t go wrong with tons of action. It’s all in who your target readers are, whether you want to be a strong flavor which people may strongly like or strongly dislike, or if you want to be more safe and minimize the dislikes. I have found that there is a segment that strongly dislikes dialog heavy novels. They prefer narration. Dialogs put a heavy load on the reader, evidently.

  8. Balancing explaining the background and not lecturing is a toughy in fantasy. Thanks to my new outlining (um, you might know somebody who had some influence into that, Katie :p ), I discovered a connection between two religious factions in my novel. After I danced around, I realized, “how to I present that to the audience?” was just as much a question as what the new info was. Fortunately, I had someone other than an eleganteur professor to pull that off (mischievous friends are good things in novels).

  9. I’m always impressed when an author can contrast motive and action in the character’s thoughts and deeds. But we have to be careful in misguiding the reader if the character knows differently all along. If we’re in a character’s POV, we almost always need to know what he knows – or have a good reason for not knowing.

  10. @London: Mischievous friends are the best. If we can fool the reader into thinking we’re entertaining him when we’re really making him learn stuff, so much the better!

  11. Such a good point! I have trouble with long phone conversations between characters. I have a problem of always putting long (kind of boring) cell phone and text conversations in my stories. I don’t even realize I’ve done it until I’m reviewing my story a few weeks after writing it!

    This was a good reminder, and I’m going to make an effort to keep most of my character’s conversations short and sweet!

  12. Nothing wrong with letting characters talk (talk and talk) in the first draft. Sometimes we just have to get the extra dialogue out of our systems, and sometimes we have to spin out the conversation in order to figure out what’s at its heart. So long as we’re judiciously editing, everything will come out fine!

  13. Great video! At the right time. Thanks!

  14. Thanks for watching!

  15. Great video!!

  16. Thanks for watching!

  17. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the movies here.

    When you have a particularly dialogue-heavy section (and sometimes you just have to!), you can make it more interesting by having the characters DO something else while they talk.

    It almost doesn’t matter what it is they’re doing (you know … almost!) They could be doing something intrinsically interesting like, for example, cleaning up after a murder or they could be doing something absolutely mundane like, for example, eating breakfast. Simply by having them involved in doing SOMETHING, you’ll find yourself writing about what they’re doing and your characters will find themselves including that in their conversation. This can add a level of tension and/or humour to the scene so that the readers are informed while they think they’re being entertained!

  18. Definitely! “Talking head” or “white wall” syndrome is a problem of its own, but it’s intrinsically related to the issue of dialogue dumps. Adding informative action beats won’t always eliminate the dump, but it can absolutely help.

  19. Nice post. It is something we all should think about when we’re writing.

  20. There are so many things we have to keep in mind as we write. It’s darn near impossible to keep them all front and center. But if we can rehearse them as we edit, we’re likely to get everything squared away sooner or later.

  21. @DABJ – that is certainly a good tip. Talking Head Syndrome was a problem in my early writing, and I noticed that in TV shows and movies, dialogue was usually attached to some kind of action, and I found incorporating the technique gave a lot more depth to my talky passages. As realistic as it may appear, having characters just sit and have a conversation can tie you in knots with trying to prevent everything seeping into those white walls.

    KM – was this infamous lecture/novel a published book? I do not mean to belittle the author, but it is one of many occasions where I have found myself wondering how it is that some books get published. It seems that for all the juggling we do, all the rules and concepts we struggle to keep in mind, just for the ghost of a chance that an agent or publisher will give us a glance, some people just slap something down over a few hundred pages and sell it. Fantasy is a bugbear of mine, because as much as I love the genre in terms of style and flavour (and I particularly like fantasy-themed movies and RPGs), I find the novels tend to just be indulgent info-dumps. It’s hard to care about the main characters when there are seventeen of them and their names are all impossible to pronounce. I do enjoy Terry Pratchett’s gentle lampooning of this with his silly fantasy names. Moist von Lipwig indeed.

  22. Yes, this is a published fantasy novel. Had it been the author’s first attempt, I sincerely doubt it would have been published. However, he’s an established fantasy author, so, to some extent, this is probably one of those frustrating instances in which the author got away with poor storytelling just because he could. To be fair, however, the book got mostly good reviews on Amazon, so not all of his readers minded the lectures.

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