Some Thoughts on the Use of Dialogue

Ratio of Narrative to Dialogue. For some unknown reason, a thought popped into my mind from left field: Is, or should, there be a ratio of dialogue to narrative in a novel? Dialogue, of course, occurs when your characters converse with each other, although there is internal dialogue which is when the character’s thoughts are spelled out. Narrative is the part of the novel that describes settings, actions; in other words, storytelling. 

Having an inquiring mind, I naturally turned to Google to find the answer. It turns out there is a lot of material on this subject, but little advice on an actual ratio. Those willing to offer an opinion generally said “about 50-50.” From my personal experience as a novelist, I’d say don’t worry about a ratio. Be concerned instead with whether your narrative is merely an information dump or effort to reach the 100,000-word level. Your real concern regarding dialogue should be whether it’s slowing or advancing the development of the story.

Dialogue Tags. An area where I do frequently see writers spoiling their stories involves the proper use of dialogue tags. These are the “he said/she said” that attribute the particular section of dialogue to a particular character. The human mind is so accustomed to the word “said” that it doesn’t really pick it up. In other words, its use doesn’t interrupt the reader. And that’s a good thing. I too often see writers, even bestselling one, mess up what may otherwise have been a good section of dialogue by straying from this rule. For example, I just finished David Baldacci’s latest novel End Run. He distracts the reader in the book’s dialogue with tags like, “he pointed out,” “she exclaimed,” “Reel observed,” “pointed out Reel,” “countered Robie,” “persisted Robie,” “conceded Luke,” “noted Robie.” And these weren’t the most egregious examples. Baldacci’s been around far too long to make such amateurish mistakes. The characters’ dialogue would have been so much smoother if the author had written: “Robie said,” “Reel asked.” 

For more information on this area, please review Arlene Prunkl’s blog at:

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