Sometimes, in my haste to make sure the reader knows something, I'll have a character go on and on in a line of dialogue, and I'll have to edit it out in revisions. I wrote this article, which originally appeared in Suite101.
Shorten Your Dialogue
Improve Pacing and Add Emotion With More Deliberate Dialogue
Often, shorter dialogue lines with more deliberate word choices can improve a scene’s pace and create greater emotional impact.
In real life, people don’t often have long speeches. Most of the time, someone will interrupt them—maybe when they pause for breath—or the speaker will purposefully pause for a reaction from the person they’re talking to.
It should be the same in your fiction.
The dialogue in a present-day novel should be more back-and-forth, give-and-take, which is what real-life dialogue is like. One person says a sentence or two, the other person responds to what they said. A character who goes on and on for a paragraph or two is bound to be interrupted at some point if it were real life.
Shorter dialogue lines tend to be more believable to the reader, immersing the reader more fully into the story world. If you can get a reader to forget where they are, you’ve done well.
Shorter lines of dialogue also make the reading pace faster. A paragraph of dialogue is very ponderous to the reader, making the reading flow sluggish.
Even slower-moving contemporary women’s fiction novels need a good reading pace—if it’s too slow, the reader is more likely to put the book down.
So go through and try to break up a paragraph of dialogue into a sentence from one character, a response by the other, etc.
Also, in shortening your dialogue, be more deliberate in the words you choose. A good, strong word can replace an entire sentence, heightening the emotional impact of the sentiment.
A good exercise is to write an entire scene in dialogue—no tags, no action beats—and limit each line of dialogue to FIVE WORDS.
You will be amazed at the stronger word choices you come up with when your dialogue length is so limited. The exercise stretches a writer in terms of choosing words deliberately and finding stronger, more vivid words to use.
In general, historical fiction writers can get away with slightly longer lines of dialogue, but that’s not license for a writer to go overboard. While the time period of the story is a different era, the reader is still contemporary.
The same rules apply—long sections of dialogue slow the reading pace and make the prose hard to read. A good book is one where the reader can move easily through the story.
This does not mean a historical novel’s dialogue should be as fast paced as a contemporary novel. It simply means that a historical writer needs to balance the fine line between the long, ponderous dialogues of “classics” and the snappy pace of contemporary novels.
A good idea is to read bestselling historical novels purely to observe the dialogue pacing, and to emulate that in your own novel.
Classic Authors and Best-Selling Books
Despite the injunctions above, most of the “classics” and many NYT Bestselling books have long paragraphs of dialogue.
However, there are two things a writer needs to consider in these cases:
(1) “Classics” were written many years ago, and both the audience and the publishing industry has changed. Writing that was acceptable back then is not always as acceptable today in this tougher publishing market.
(2) NYT Bestselling authors can pretty much write whatever they want. An unpublished writer trying to break into the publishing industry has to adhere to stricter standards in order to rise above the thousands of other manuscripts editors see every year.
So while classics and bestselling authors can get away with long paragraphs of dialogue, an unpublished writer should try to do all he/she can to make their writing as professional and vivid as possible. The competition is fierce.