Is Your Character a Windbag?

This week’s video explains why lengthy sections of unbroken dialogue make your characters’ speech less realistic—and more boring.

Video Transcription:

Dialogue is one of the most exciting and fun bits to write in any story, not only because it gives us the opportunity to hear our characters speak, but also because it’s one of the prime breeding grounds for conflict. The trick to good dialogue is that sometimes elusive balance between realism and economy. One of the most important no-nos of writing dialogue combines the essence of both these goals into a rule that should be obvious but often isn’t: Don’t let your character be a windbag.

No character, even one who has weighty, interesting, and important things to say, should be allowed to speechify at great length. A historical novel I read recently allowed its characters to ramble on, uninterrupted, for not just paragraphs but pages. To misquote Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Avonlea movie: “In real life, the character’s listeners would have pitched him.” In real life, people rarely allow other people to speak for a minute straight. In fiction, we have a little more leeway, but just because the opportunity is available doesn’t mean we should abuse it.

Lengthy, unbroken sections of dialogue usually signal two pitfalls: One is a complete lack of conflict, since one character is hogging the limelight instead of sharing it, or at least squabbling over it, with another character. And the second is the great likelihood of an info dump. If you find one of your characters is turning into a windbag and rattling on for any amount of time longer than a good-sized paragraph, take matters into your own hands and start interrupting. Have other characters interject, ask questions, object to the first character’s opinions, or add new information of their own. Not only will your dialogue sound more realistic, it will also be more likely to keep your readers engaged.

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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.

Comments

  1. Struggling with this in the present book, one of the dangers when writing in first person as I always do.

  2. This really annoys me when I read. In fact I have skipped pages in books because I get board. I find my weakness is swinging the other way. Sometimes my dialog is too scarce.

  3. @Carole: First-person actually offers quite a few ways around the windbag phenomenon, since it allows the narrator to share lengthy opinions through other means than straight dialogue.

    @Krista: Dialogue is a blast to write – and readers love it – so it’s a hard one to overdo. The trick is to make sure the dialogue is balanced among the characters, or, if it’s not, that it’s done for a good reason.

  4. Speechify! Hehe, I love it. Yes, I try to avoid BIG blocks of speech with any of my characters. Some are more windbags than others, though. ;o)

  5. Windy characters are actually a lot of fun sometimes. So long as the author controls the speeches for optimum effectiveness (and/or humor) all is good.

  6. Yes! I love that scene in Anne of Avonlea. I <3 Gilbert Blythe. 😉

  7. Gotta love the irony of Anne pitching *him* for his speech.

  8. I say…if a character starts rambling…have some other characters interrupt them, fall asleep, or walk out of the room. Just like real life! 🙂

  9. Or they could always fall asleep. That could make for some interesting confict!

  10. Totally agree. If I have to choose between a book that has an excess of dialog and one that has an excess of prose/exposition, I choose the latter. Robin McKinley is amazing at writing as little dialog as possible, yet the dialog she does write tells you something about each character.

    “I apologize most profoundly” <--my favorite bit of dialog from Sunshine. 🙂

  11. I love dialogue. It’s fun to write and fun to read. I love the experimental stories that are nothing *but* dialogue. But dialogue, like any element of story, has to be doled out in just the correct doses if it’s going to work.

  12. An acquaintance of mine talks in half-an-hour shots, he’s virtually unstoppable. I feel guilty and try to stop myself if my monologue is longer than 5 mintues. I think many people often get carried away. I think lengthy monologues are good if they absolutely have to be like that. For example, Dostoevsky is all consisting of lengthy monologues. People love it!!!

  13. Dostoevsky got away with a lot of things that would land him in the reject pile today. Except in instances where the author is trying for a specific effect (e.g. humor), he isn’t likely to get away with pages of monologue.

  14. LOL!!! ahh… the title of your blog post made me *snort*snort*snort*

    We don’t care for windbags in real life, much less in literature. Great point, KM~ :o) <3

  15. Snorting reading are my favorites! 😉 This is one area in which “do to others” applies. If our characters’ dialogue ever goes on so long that it would make our eyes glaze in real life, we’d best do our readers a favor and cut it down in our fiction.

  16. unless … the narrator is your protagonist like in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale 🙂

  17. Narration and dialogue are two different things. A narrating character – particularly one with an interesting voice, such as in Atwood’s book – won’t get slapped with the windbag tag, since she’s speaking directly to the reader via narrative, rather than to other characters via dialogue. Some stories (Absalom! Absalom!, Lord Jim) get around this rule by making their dialogue essentially double as the narration, but their authors are using the technique for a studied effect.

  18. ahhh… I knew I had to read this today – since I wrote a chapter that was entirely dialogue. 😛 The unfortunate thing is, I write all the exciting parts that I know of in my story first, and then have to figure out how they’re all connected. And… then the characters have to talk me through everything that’s going on… which ends up making editing absolutely a nightmare. 😛 I’ll get it at some point. 🙂
    Thanks for another helpful post! 😀

  19. I do most of my “talking through” mentally long before writing scenes. But it still amazes me how much my characters have to work out in dialogue in order for me to make sense of certain plot points. And, you’re right, it can make editing rather interesting!

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