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How do you balance prose and dialogue in your novel? How much of either is "too much"?

Writing is a balancing act. So much in life goes unsaid, and so much of what’s unsaid is important. Like most feats of balance, it helps to know what happens when we go to either extreme: all dialog and no prose, or all prose and no dialog. If done well, the extremes can be the way to go. But how often are they warranted? Seldom. Life usually comes somewhere in the middle. It’s a mixture of signals from everywhere in our environment.

As humans, we have to decide which signals are important to pay attention to. Luckily our brains take care of a lot of this filtering without us having to do it consciously. As writers, however, we must observe the world in a way that reveals how the human mind takes in information. We communicate with our whole bodies, and the environment affects our state of being. So we must do our best to observe interactions holistically, then translate that reality into the worlds we create.

It’s easy to overdose on dialog. It can water down a scene by allowing characters to reveal too much. It can even make the reader feel like the characters are floating in space without the context of setting. But when there isn’t enough dialog, when the conversation is summarized by the narrator for example, the characters can start to feel distant. The lens is pulled away. Finding this balance all depends on the tone, emotion, and situation of the scene. The wonderful thing is that you can be the judge. There’s no right or wrong way to view the world, as long as it’s true to the characters.

We have to ask ourselves how each piece of information in a story should be communicated to the reader. What if we had a scene with two characters who speak their minds easily, and another involving two characters who are guarded around each other? If you wrote two versions of the same conversation with these two sets of characters, how would they differ? Try it out and see how the balance of prose to dialog shifts.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.


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