re: How Much Talk Is Too Much in YA Fiction?

in Dialogue/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a young adult novel?

Sincerely,

Katie

Dear Katie…

I’m on Day 7 of intense dialogue immersion as I draft that chapter of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, so your question finds me in the right frame of mind—albeit barely. The gray matter is nearly wrung dry on this topic. Let’s see what I can squeeze out.

There’s no official “too much” threshold for dialogue in YA fiction. You’ve got to find the right balance of dialogue and narrative for your style and your target age group. The bestselling The Book Thief (ages 12 and up) is almost 600 pages, with probably 2/3 of each page being narrative rather than dialogue. This might intimidate younger readers, who tend to feel comfortable seeing white space and dialogue on their pages. But then, The Book Thief’s got a lot of white space thanks to frequent paragraphing, and its conversational narration makes even the narrative bits feel like dialogue, establishing a satisfying balance. The reverse, a book that’s 2/3 dialogue on each page, can feel balanced if the narrative that does appear avoids wasting time on innocuous actions (brushing hair aside, turning to face other characters) and instead offers dynamic and revealing actions that challenge readers—perhaps deliberately contradicting the spoken words, or hinting at feelings that the speaking character wants to hide. The narrative could add a subtext, extra plot info, and additional tension to the story. My worry is that setting might be overlooked when the narrative is spare. Setting can be worked into the action (a character interacting with a prop in a revealing manner) or directly addressed in the narrative (a brief sensual description of the place) to illuminate or enhance your character in ways that dialogue alone cannot do.

Happy writing!

The Editor

7 Comments

  1. Very interesting topic today. You’ve given me a lot to think about. While I try to balance evenly, I end up with more or less depending on if I’m writing YA or MG. I think my characters’actions needs to be more dynamic and revealing, considering what you just pointed out. Thanks for the post!

  2. This entry/answer is one I find useful and timely. I keep revising and polishing my MG novel but repeatedly catch the dreaded “filler” dialogue that made sense yesterday, but today upon closer scrutiny fails to further the plot, develop a character, or up the action. I weed that filler out but invariably find more later in the story. If your upcoming book helps writers avoid this common pitfall, it will be highly useful. And not just for dummies!

  3. I agree that it’s such a good reminder to watch out for innocuous actions. Am going through my notes from LA talk by Dear Editor against my novel and working on her recommendations. One hour talk was so great that am really looking forward to book.

  4. And that balance comes from nailing your voice. A very hard target to hit. I find that when I think “too much dialog” and then push the narrative, it doesn’t work. And when I think “too little dialog” and throw in extra speeches for my characters, it doesn’t work either. I’m trying to think less and simply feel the voice more. Dear Editors guide for dummies would help too! :>)

  5. Hmm. I thought the action like she pushed her hair behind her ears after saying something would help to break up multiple sentences of dialog, kinda like giving the reader some breathing space and showing them maybe a character’s habit. Not good?

    • Sure, that action breaks up the dialogue, but nothing more. It squanders an opportunity for action that reveals something about the character—her personality or her mood. Brushing hair is not a revealing habit. I know nothing more about the character for having read that. Now, had she nonchalantly crushed an ant with her finger while the other character flinched, or had she crumbled her gum wrapper and thrown it in the bushes, or put a sudsy dish in the drying wrack without bothering to rinse it, then we’d have some insight into what she cares about. There are many other opportunities for “narrative beats” between the dialogue, like conveying setting or plot information. The point is, it’s prime real estate in your novel, invest wisely.

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