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Author Topic: too much dialogue?
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
My husband (and biggest... ok only... fan) was reading something I wrote a few weeks ago, and said, "There's too much dialogue." To me it seemed fine, maybe because I've written plays, it didn't bother
me. So I wanted to ask, "When is it too much dialogue?" Is there a limit? Is it better to say what needs saying as narrative? My work is very dialogue oriented, but I don't want to be doing
something which will put off a perspective publisher. Thanks for the input!

This is a question someone asked me for the letter column of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop newsletter (which I edit and publish). The woman who asked the question gave me permission to ask it here, as well. We'd like to know what you all think.


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Shendülféa
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With most anything in writing, there's a happy medium. I read somewhere once that if your story has too much dialogue, break it up with scenes of action or describe how your characters are feeling and what they're doing. Hope that helps.
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kwsni
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It makes me nervous when I have more than three lines of pure dialogue. It means I'm not deep enough into my POV character's head to see what he's thinking of what he's hearing, or why he's saying what he is.

That said, I love writing dialogue, and have to watch it when i go overboard.

edit: it is impossible for me to spell dialogue right on the first attempt.

Ni!

[This message has been edited by kwsni (edited April 04, 2005).]


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Survivor
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It depends a lot on the context. For instance, with good first person writing and things like flashbacks, you're trying to portray a recollection of a conversation rather than the immediate conversation itself. In a case like that, you want to hit only those lines that it would seem plausible that the character/narrator would remember and think important. Long verbatim transcripts of exactly what was said is highly inappropriate in such a case.

Other times, you're portraying an on-going conversation, so basically everything that the POV hears should be written so that the reader feels immersed in that scene. But you can't rely on dialogue alone to create immersion. The words that are being spoken are only one thing, simply transcribing them doesn't even give you the sense of how they're being said, let alone what else might be going on in a scene. If the motivations for certain lines spoken by the POV or the implications of lines heard by the POV are non-trivial, those motivations and implications need to be addressed.

Even in writing something like a play, you have a lot of things that aren't just what the actors should say but how they should say things and what they should do while saying and reacting to the lines spoken. A good director and cast will fill a lot of things in, must fill a lot of things in, but a good playwrite puts into the action as well as the lines.

The difference is that with a reader, you can't just tell them to imagine this or that happening. You must persuade readers to feel and percieve the action of a scene, the flow of motivation and reactions. So in writing for readers, you need to put far more into writing about what doesn't get said by any of the characters.

This isn't a matter of having too much dialogue. The problem is not having enough of everything else.

Of course there are situations where you can let dialogue stand entirely on its own. Usually, this is a vignette--less than a page, usually less than half a page--which occurs outside of any POV or scene. If you're doing something like that, it is quite possible to make it just a little too long or involved.

So what does all this mean? Well, that whether or not a complaint of too much dialogue actually means that you need to cut some of the dialogue tends to depend on the circumstances. Sometimes you need to cut a few trivial lines, sometimes you need to leaven a conversation with elements of scene and POV, sometimes you've gone and left out the scene that should have been leavened with a bit of dialogue, and sometimes you've let a dialogue vignette go a bit too long. I could come up with more possibilities, but then this post would be the thing of which there is definitely too much


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hoptoad
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I agree that it depends on the context.

But usually when I see a couple ( or more ) of long paragraphs all encapsulated in quotes I get very antsy.

It's funny but I don't mind it as a character muses over something -- internal dialogue -- but I can't stand it when they're talking out loud.

Maybe it is because people don't often talk in rambling soliloquies or, if they do, few people will listen.

Maybe if the character is a crashing bore, it is okay, but don't expect the reader to remember or care what they are saying.

Wouldn't it be your worst nightmare to see a play that you have written performed without any expressive gestures, or movement or lighting or music or anything that help to establish the mood and setting? Just two people jawing-off on a stage under fluorescent tube lights, no almost-grins nor eyebrows raised. The audience would probably hate it.

But when you write a story you are the writer and the actors and the director and sound and lighting and props and stage management. To mangle a well known phrase, don't let the dialogue get in the way of a good story, or in fact the 'rest of the story.

I once heard that about 85 percent of a person's communication is non-verbal, I wonder if this relates to the question of 'how much dialogue should I write? When dealing with a character maybe make about 15 or 20 percent of that character's communications come by way of dialogue and the rest as non-verbal cues.

This of course depends heavily on what POV the writer employs. In some cases you may be able to add internal dialogue, observations, realisations etc

This may sound stupid and it may be too cut and dried, but certainly gives me pause to think.

By the way, I have never used that method and it occuer to me just now as I write but will give it a shot, its just ink and paper after all.

Maybe it will be worth it, maybe not.

Either way, my point is that when all is said and done people learn less from what is said than what is done.

(Now I am feeling very clever, will go away and read some Spike Milligan)

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited April 04, 2005).]


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mikemunsil
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Gosh. Isn't this a question that pretty much has to be answered in context? That is, by reference to the piece in question? It just seems to me that there are so many variables to take into account that you have to look at specific cases, or the answers you get are generic and thus of limited use.

From a personal perspective, I can only read dialogue as long as I care about what is being said, and I only care about what is being said if 1) I care about the character, and or 2) the dialogue carries the story ahead and works to fulfill the social contract between writer and reader.

mm


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wbriggs
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Maybe he really meant "not enough of something else." Which could be, I wanted to see some action. Or it could be, your text is like this:

"---," he said.
"---," she said.
"---."
"---," she said.

But he'd rather see this:

"---," he said, looking out over the veranda. Dead leaves everywhere. Everything was falling apart.
"---," she said.
"---."
"---," she said, falling heavily onto the sofa. She put her head in her hands.


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Christine
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I live for dialogue. It's my favorite part to write and my favorite part to read because dialogue is a sort of action. The long paragraphs in between without quotes are often liess interesting to me.

As I have become more sophisticated in both writing and reading, I have learned to find value in those in-between paragraphs, but they still don't grip me as much as dialogue. Even now, I write some novel chapters that are almost entirely dialogue driven.

Here's the thing: proper setup. If we know who the characters are in advance, then there is little need to break up the dialogue with meaningless observations of what the character is thinking or feeling. We should be able to guess based on what we know of them.

Many people seem to think that breaking up dialogue is necessary, and if *more than oNe* person tells you it's too much, then I would suggest finding some things to break it up, but there's definitely no magic number, no formula.

And if someone says "there's too much dialogue" I would go out on a limb and suggest that there's really a different underlying problem...not enough of something else rather than too much dialogue. Not enough of what depends upon the story? Not enough description? Not enough characterization? Not enough action or movement? These would be good things to look for as a start.


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J
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I second Christine's analysis. There is no such thing as "too much dialogue." Take, for example, the all-time classic "The Brothers Karamazov" (or anything else Tolstoy wrote, for that matter). Dialogue takes up a hefty chunk of literary space, but no one in their right mind would venture to say that there is "too much."

On the other hand, there is such a thing a dialogue unsuited to a particular piece. In writing done less skillfuly than Tolstoy's (such as, for example, that of L.E. Modesitt), a much smaller word percentage of dialogue seems like far too much.

But, as Christine said, the real issue isn't amount--it's propriety. Proportion, if you will, but in a Platonic rather than a mathematic sense.

[This message has been edited by J (edited April 04, 2005).]


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MaryRobinette
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I would agree with Christine, I love dialogue. Heinlein could write pages of text which consisted of nothing but two characters speaking to one another. If the two characters have clear and distinct voices then it's a joy to read because it is like listening in on a conversation. I also agree with the folks that say that context is important. Some stories do need more action.

I think the bigger problem your writer faces is that she's about to correct something that only one reader has complained about. Send her our way and see if that concern stands.


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HSO
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I like dialogue, too. I sometimes skip whole paragraphs just to get to the dialogue.

In my opinion, dialogue serves two major roles:

1. To develop characters (traits, attitudes, personality, heritage, et al).
2. To further the plot

If it doesn't do these two things, I will cut it. This is often difficult to determine, though. If a character typically engages in pointless banter that has nothing to do with anything in the story, perhaps as part of a personality trait or quirk, then maybe that's the exception... I suppose.


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franc li
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I'm a dialogue person. Maybe it's because it was something my high school creative writing teacher praised in my work. And I would be totally non-shocked if my husband said there was too much. He's a guy, after all. I don't know if this applies to the situation of this couple, but my husband doesn't ever call and talk to one of his siblings who lives out of town for hours on end.
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Tanglier
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I'm not a dialogue guy. I read a book to find out what people are thinking, not what people are saying. The only thing I want from my dialogue is a joke, or maybe the rare honest confession, everything else, I'd rather read in straight prose.
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Jaina
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I'm with Christine: I love writing dialogue and I love reading it. It can tell a lot about a character when it's used properly.

There's a short story I read in high school--"They're Made out of Meat" by Terry Bisson--that's 100% dialogue. There aren't even attributions in it. It's just
"--"
"--"
"--"
"--"
for the whole thing. And I loved it!

Of course, often, dialogue is about what isn't said just as much as it is about what is said.


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Thieftess
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I come from a large family, steeped on both sides in oral tradition. The meat of my stories comes frome dialogue. It's who your characters are and how they think and how they react...their idiosyncracies and their points of view.

But I also think that the characters are the heart of the story. Many readers (often men) like plot and intrigue and technobabble. So I think a perception of "too much dialogue" could be a result of either party -- too much empty, unexpressive dialogue on the part of the author, or the reader simply does not place as much weight in character development as the author feels the story warrants.

Edit - because you never see the typos until you post... ~Alethea

[This message has been edited by Thieftess (edited April 05, 2005).]


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Survivor
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There's dialogue and dialogue. They're Made out of Meat is very short, and every line of the dialogue directly addresses the concept of the story. Doystovevsky make Notes from Underground work, for Heaven's sake. And the relationships in The Brothers Karamozov are driven by the different ideas about life they express through their dialogue.

But if your biggest fan says "too much dialogue", then you have a problem of some kind. You shouldn't just shrug it off and say "there's never too much dialogue."

My characters don't talk to listen to their own voices. If they say something, I leave it in...for a while, anyway. But by the same token, they don't always say enough. Sometimes they do.


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EricJamesStone
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I went through and figured out the ratio of dialogue words to non-dialogue words in the non-flash stories I've finished over the past two years. (I did a word count, then searched and replaced "*" using wildcards to delete all dialogue words, and did a word count again.)

Percentage of dialogue:

23%
34%
41%
49%
53%
22%
51%
10%
63%
52%

As you can see, there's quite a range: 10% to 63%.


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HSO
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Geez, Eric. Wow. Bored?

Interesting data, though. I love data. For the on-line Scrabble games I've got going with a friend of mine, I've created a spreadsheet that lists out various game things. Including which Triple Word Scores were landed on; final score differentials; winning streaks; and number of Bingos, among others. I suppose I'm a bit obsessive.


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EricJamesStone
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Took me no more than five minutes to do that.

I like data, too.


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Keeley
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I agree with everything that's been said so far, but want to add two things: please, don't use dialogue as an info dump if it doesn't fit the story. If you use dialogue only to advance the plot and for character development, this shouldn't be a problem.

Anything that begins with "As you well know..." or an exchange that goes something like "Are you familiar with x?", "Of course," then proceeds to explain in excruciating detail what x is, is an info dump. It brings on a feeling of "too much dialogue". There's no need for it because the person asking the question is already aware of the answer, and nothing more than a brief summary is needed from the person answering (as with all things, the amount of detail varies).

That doesn't mean it can't be done. Teachers explaining something to a class, or messengers delivering a report can get away with it because it's a natural part of the conversation.

Anyway, my two cents. Not worth much because my head feels like it's been stuffed with cotton (not feeling well).


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EricJamesStone
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Dr. Smith said, "Are you familiar with quantum physics, Dr. Jones?"

"I'm a quantum physicist, actually," said Dr. Jones.

"Excellent. I'm a cosmologist myself, so perhaps it would be better if you explained quantum entanglement to me for the benefit of the reader, rather than the other way around."

Dr. Jones frowned. "You were planning on having the reader explain entanglement to you for my benefit?"


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Shendülféa
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Again, as I have mentioned before, I am a visual reader and I don't much like long strings of dialogue. When there is dialogue, I like to know what the characters are doing at the same time as they are speaking. What are their facial expressions? What are they looking at? What sort of posture do they have? Do they have any interesting mannerisms?

When I read something that is pure dialogue or is at least 80% dialogue, I get bored because to me it's like listening to the radio. Yawn. Even when the characters have good voices, it's still hard for me to picture what it is that they're doing at the same time that they are speaking.

See, when I write or when I read stories, a movie plays through my head of what's going on. If I have plain dialogue, I can't picture anything but a radio in front of me playing a story over the air. I can't visualize much of what's going. I need to read descriptions of what's going on to do that. I want to be able to see to picture myself in front of a movie screen, watching everything that's going on while the characters speak to one another. I want to notice what Joe is doing with that pocket knife he's got in his hands. I want to see his eyes shifting back and forth from the door to David as he waits nervously for something to burst in at any moment. I want to see David enjoying his coffee, not noticing at first what David is doing. I want to see his brow furrow, his smile fading, as he notices that Joe keeps fidgeting with the knife and then asks him what's going on.

If all I have is:
"Hoo, boy! That was a great game last night, wasn't it, Joe?"
"Uh...yeah, s-sure."
"Joe? Ya...you seem a little nervous. What are you playing with that knife for?"
"N-nothing, David, nothing."

Sure, I can picture Joe being fidgety with the knife and sure, I can picture a look on David's face when he asks him why, but I can't picture Joe's eyes darting back and forth from the door to David to the door again. I can't see David leaning on the counter as he drinks from a mug of coffee. I can't see that look of bewilderment and concern on his face when Joe replies, eyes darting back to the door again.

With pure dialogue, no matter how well-developed the voice, I can only picture fragments of the scene going on. Yet, again, I think this is something that depends on the reader. Some people like dialogue, others description. I just happen to be one who likes description.

[This message has been edited by Shendülféa (edited April 05, 2005).]


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Thieftess
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Heh...Keeley, I totally get you.

My favorite pet peeve from my Print On Demand copyediting days was "Go on." Some character would have a huge paragraph of diatribe, and the author would have another person in the room say "go on" just to have a break before the NEXT huge paragraph of diatribe.

In one manuscript, this happened at a press conference. Hahahaha...can't you just see the president stopping so a reporter can say, "Go on" ?


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hoptoad
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My dialogue breakdown happens like this:
22%
26%
26%
(Haven't written as much as EJS)

Maybe my stuff would be boring to a lot of people.

Also, as an Informal Education and Interpretation designer (That means self-directed discretionary learning that people choose to do for fun) I get a lot of information about the 'methods of learning' or 'learning strategies' that people generally use ie: the Visual Learner 1 & 2, Auditory Learner and Kinesthetic Learner. I am beginning to wonder whether there is correlation between a person's preferred learning method and the stories they tend to enjoy.

Most people use a combination of methods to learn, but one will usually be predominant, and the learner will be most skilled in that method.

getting to the point

In a culture that is increasingly visual/kinesthetic in focus ie: movies, computer games and other modes of modern entertainment, are we breeding a generation less skilled in the Auditory learning methods? If so, how might this effect the popularity of heavy-dialogue stories and reading for fun in general?

Is there any established research on such things or am I kidding myself? Is it worth worrying about? Here is where you get out the 'just tell your story' pen. But writing is about communicating, shouldn't we want to tell the story in a way that is enjoyable to the broadest range of people? I'm not advocating broadcasting either dumbed-down or sexed-up stories but rather, telling our story in a way that will get into a majority of minds.

Is this a twisted, self-torturing thought?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited April 05, 2005).]


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Stormlight Shadows
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In one of the story that I was reading that I got fed up with all the description and not plot driven or talk or anything that kept the story rolling, I started to write a story with mostly dialogue and it does seem that there is much of talking and no descripive but I wanted the person to imagine for themselves what is going on, almost like when the director, of film, theatre, he/she might see something different than what the writer was writing himself/herself. Now I want a happy medium, but I do want to have more interaction than descriptive writing.
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Survivor
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You know something interesting?

When I read a bit of dialogue out loud for the benefit of someone who wonders why I'm laughing, I usually treat everything outside the quotes as "direction". I don't say "he said" "she tapped her foot" "he grinned sheepishly". I may or may not actually do those things, but I don't read them out loud. But when I read a non-dialogue passage I include every word unless I'm deliberately skipping part of the text for some reason.

That's just an interesting observation. I don't know what it means (aside from the obvious).


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Keeley
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quote:
"Excellent. I'm a cosmologist myself, so perhaps it would be better if you explained quantum entanglement to me for the benefit of the reader, rather than the other way around."

Dr. Jones frowned. "You were planning on having the reader explain entanglement to you for my benefit?"


lol!


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Jaina
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That is interesting, Survivor, because I do the same thing. Wonder if it has something to do with the learning styles that hoptoad was talking about?
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Survivor
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Well, possibly. It would seem to mean that auditory learners would actually tend to prefer that stories contain as little directly quoted dialogue as possible. I'm not sure what visually oriented types would prefer.

Since I'm oriented towards intuition and logic rather than the gross physical senses, I don't really care one way or another.


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Shendülféa
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That's an interesting thought, Survivor. I'm thinking that auditory oriented people are more likely to enjoy books with a lot of dialogue (particularly if they are on tape). Visually oriented people, like me, are more likely to read something that has a lot of description in it. I'm not sure exactly what logical and critical thinkers would prefer, but I am one of them also (I'm VERY math oriented). Interesting that I don't know what they prefer...

Perhaps they like to read about what the character is thinking...? I dunno. Just a thought.


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hoptoad
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LOL SurVivor
Was that as a joke?

Focus: To concentrate attention or energy, (concentrate: to converge toward or meet in a common center.)

Intuition: The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of deductive reasoning

Logic: Method and validity in deductive reasoning


Dialogue needs to feel right. (But then I'm a kinesthetic learner.)


Maybe this line of thinking goes to support the idea that a range of senses needs to be represented in a single work in order to gesture toward the whole, or greater subject, being addressed. No one argues with the idea that dialogue needs to be balanced or deliberately in imbalance. Balance or imbalance can be achieved in many ways. It is achieved through an enormous range of methods when composing visual artworks especially when you consider the impact of absence, or the negative space in a piece.

The same MUST be true of a written work. The absence of any type of communication, whether it is verbal or nonverbal, deduced or realised, says a great deal.

Whether that is known or unknown to the writer is another question.

Maybe this should all be in another thread and I should just shut-up now.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited April 06, 2005).]


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Mr_Megalomaniac
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I don't have much of a preference to either dialouge or description. As long as I like what's going on, it doesn't matter to me how the story is being played out. And after reading all the comments that people made there's enough differences in likes to where the writer should just write how he/she feels most comfortable, and after they get it down, then make what add-ons or subtractions to dialouge/narration for any reason that is needed, except maybe to please those who dislike "too much" dialouge or narration.
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Survivor
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The dictionary is wrong. Anyone that is competent and confident in using logic will tell you that it depends completely on intuition, and vice versa.
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J
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Survivor, as a matter of logic, your last statement cannot be true.

I suspect you are conflating "logic" with the entirely different concept of "reason."

Read some Aquinas (Summa Theologica) for an example of logic, and I'm sure you'll see the difference..


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Isaiah13
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I make logical decisions based on intuition all the time. However, I don't always realize that they are/were logical until after the fact. My subconscious is always one step ahead. Does that make sense?
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hoptoad
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lol, Sieur Viva,
I am sorry, yes, my dictionary is wrong, it does not contain 'conflating.'

But to compensate, I have a memory so good I can remember things that didn't even happen...

[This message has been edited by hoptoad to 're-spell' Survivor as though he existed when Summa Theologica was written... which we all know, of course, is true.]

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited April 07, 2005).]


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Kah-Lea
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I want to thank all of you who responded to my question, it really helped a lot! Although the replies were somewhat different in viewpoint, it gave me the feedback I needed and I've gone back to that troublesome passage with a new perspective. Thanks again for your help! Lindlae
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Kah-Lea
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Typical of me, I think of other things to add after I've already posted. I read through the rest of the replies here and found it even more enlightening.

In reference to Hoptoad's theory about learning styles, he could be onto something. My husband is a very visual learner. Show him something once, he can repeat it perfectly. I am somewhat of a visual learner, but my real strength is auditory. Perhaps that gives us a bit more of purely unscientific data. I like data too, only find compiling it is rather tedious.

My dialogue is always plot oriented. I try very hard not to have people babble about nothing, adding little to the forward motion of the book. My descriptions tend to be a bit abbreviated, the play thing again. They give enough detail to give the reader information to ignite the imagination. I hope?

My husband is a very detail oriented person, probably because he's in the medical field. He likes specifics. I tend to be less specific because I like to involve the reader, let them add to the scene. I hope that clarifies a little.

Thanks again for all the input!


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rjzeller
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I further Christine's comments at least insofar as I love to read dialogue.

I hate to write it, though. I just struggle sometimes to find a 'natural' feel for it. Maybe it's just having to add all those litte quotes that bogs me down....

But I think if someone perceives that there is too much logic, then characters are probably speaking without anything really being accomplished. As someone said previously, it either advances the story, reveals or develops character, or generates conflict. If there's a lot of dialogue and it's not doing one (or all) of these, then I can see someone feeling like there's just too much of it.

Z


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