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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » dialogue heavy plots

   
Author Topic: dialogue heavy plots
MAP
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Okay, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I'm hoping you guys can provide some insights.

I'm a regular reader of pubrants, agent Kristen Nelson's blog. She has posted this advice twice now, and I'm not sure what she means by it.

She says, "A novel's plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters."

She further says that she sees this a lot in Fantasy manuscripts that she passes on, which makes me nervous because I'd think this would be more of a problem in literary fiction and romance.

I understand that something should happen in a novel, that it can't just be characters sitting around talking all the time (and honestly I have a hard time imagining a fantasy novel that does this), but how much dialogue is too much? And can't a heated argument be as action-filled as a physical fight?

I guess I've always seen dialogue as action. So is she warning us about conflict free scenes? Scenes that have two people chatting with no tension, no underlining conflict, no power struggle?

I've always loved dialogue, both reading it and writing it. But I'm wondering if there are pitfalls to a plot heavy with dialogue. Any thoughts?

[ January 29, 2012, 08:36 PM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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redux
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I think what she is trying to say is that dialog that moves the plot along is fine, but dialog that discusses the plot is not.

Also, all dialog should have subtext. If there's no subtext, there is no conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no plot.

Edited to add:
The first example that popped in my head is the difference between the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK love story between Leia and Han and the ATTACK OF THE CLONES love story between Padme and Anakin. In the first one, their dialog had plenty of subtext. The scenes between them were an opportunity for their feelings to develop, not a set piece to discuss their feelings. In the latter, you literally have shot reverse shot of Anakin telling Padme he loves her over and over again, in a field, at a dinner table, on a couch by a fireplace.... Needless to say it is painfully boring and cringe worthy.

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LDWriter2
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Taking her words as they mean. I would say that you wouldn't have to worry with normal conversations. Some of those might be longer than others but is that the only way, or main way, the plot is being moved forward? If not I wouldn't worry about it. I can why it would be a worry but at the same time take a look at your work and see how you answer my question.

And remember that she is one agent.


And I think some fantasies tend to be literary.

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extrinsic
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Artful dialogue scenes regardless of genre include conversation, action, sensation, and introspection, among several other writing modes, a dozen or so all told that I can name.

Otherwise, a scene comes across as disembodied talking head white statues in a white room setting.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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It seems to me that OSC's fiction tends to be dialog-heavy, so I'd recommend studying one of his books and seeing how he makes it work.

I noticed it particularly in PASTWATCH, The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, so that might be a good one to look at. He does it in most, if not all, of them, though.

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axeminister
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Redux,
Good call on the Star Wars analogy.
That's very helpful.

Axe

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Merlion-Emrys
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Reading just what you've posted here, MAP, my first honest response is that this is just a kooky taste thing of this particular person's. Like you I wonder how or where or why she's coming upon fantasy...especially high fantasy...novels with these types of issues. While fantasy can be "literary" (Magical Realism, for instance, is to me basically just a type of fantasy with a more "literary" style and more understated fantastical elements) I think most of us associate fantasy with a good deal of action (as in, combat, overcoming of physical or mystical obstacles, that kind of thing.) All of this leads me to think it has to do with this individuals particular perceptions and tastes, and therefore I wouldn't worry about it.


There are pitfalls to everything, one of them being the fact that some people have some things that they either want a whole whooping slew of and/or things that, even they are present more than slightly, they consider to be "too much." I also find what this person seems to be saying a bit strange given that, right now, everyone seems obsessed with characterization and such and to me dialogue is a primary tool of characterization (I feel the best way to convey what's going on with a character is through their words and their actions.)

So, again I say...best not to worry too much about it. As LD says, she's just one person.

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redux
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In the agent's defense, she said she sees it in fantasy manuscripts, not necessarily in published fantasy. I don't think she is making a generalization about the genre, only about the manuscripts she keeps getting (which lately seem to be mostly fantasy and YA).

I agree that people in fiction have to talk - but they must talk with purpose.

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extrinsic
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Some from column A, some from column B, column C, column D, I evaluate everyone's, who I can lay hands on, expressions of writing shortcomings and strengths. Then reconcile them with each other and my position and creative vision. If an agent says she's seeing a lot of dialogue-heavy narratives and a publisher's screening readers are saying they're not seeing enough dialogue, I ask why dialogue is strong, why weak, what makes it work, not work, and adapt and implement my own methods and creative vision and understanding to meet those audience expectations.
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Wannabe
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I'm glad you posted this because right now this is something I'm concerned about. My current manuscript is a sequel and is more dialog heavy, especially at the beginning, than its predecessor. This is because the plot has expanded and so the lens has changed somewhat but I'm afraid the first 30 pages are just conversations. An exaggeration but still, that might be how it feels to people. The conversations are about important plot elements, and decisions are made, threats analyzed, etc., but they are still just words. No flying bullets.
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redux
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Wannabe - Don't worry about having flying bullets. Sometimes words can be a good substitute. Just read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The pitfall of dialog is when it doesn't add anything to the story other than word count.

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MartinV
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redux, that's a good example with the Star Wars. Dialogue really should have subtext, something the reader must see beyond the words. For instance, I immensely enjoyed the verbal sparing in the latest Sherlock Holmes movie between Holmes and Moriarty. Every word seems to have 10 meanings. I love it. I think it's time to actually read those books...

I think the dialogue that agents abhor is the mundane dialogue that sounds something like this:
"Hey."
"Hey. How you been?"
"Good. You?"
"Ok, I guess."
Four lines of text and no new information. No need to go on, I think.

Same rules that apply to what events should be included in the story apply to what belongs into a dialogue: reveal relationships, reveal important information, verbal sparring (equivalent to a combat scene). That's it.

I probably overdo it with my dialogues, but so far I heard nothing but good things about them. So I'll keep doing what I'm doing and that is developing my story around dialogues.

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
"A novel's plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters."
I agree...though some description should be thrown in along the way.

But it's not sitting around...they should be talking while they're doing, be it a chess game or a swordfight.

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shimiqua
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I watched a SyFy movie, based off of Moby Dick, (except instead of a whale, it was a white dragon,) and it was so horribly boring. The whole thing was a bunch of actors in cool outfits sitting at bars, discussing what already happened, or what happened in the past, and then they'd move, and then come in from fighting a big battle, (and not show any of the battle) and then talk about what just happened in an angst filled kind of a way.

Oh my gosh, it was horrible.

I love a great conversation, I love me some good dialogue, but sometimes you need to actually see what has happened.

I don't know if that's what she means, but that's what popped into my head.
~Sheena

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MAP
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Thanks everyone. Awesome advice and insights. That's why I love this place. [Smile]

Redux, I totally agree with you about Attack of the Clones. That dialogue was terrible, and brought the story to a grinding hault. Great points about subtext.

KDW, I never noticed OSC's stories being heavy in dialogue. I'll definitely see how he does it.

Wannabe, I'm in the same boat. That is why I started this topic. [Smile]

Merlion, the thing is that this agent represents a lot of stuff that I really like. Similar to what I write. I really think that my stuff might appeal to her.

But I think everyone has given really great advice here. No talking heads or sitting without action, dialog needs to move the story forward, don't just talk about events show them.

Lots of great stuff here. Thanks everyone.

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Owasm
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That's not to say you can't intersperse important dialogue with discussion that promotes the setting. It's just that you have to be careful about how much you put in.

I'm working on a 'period' piece that requires mundane dialog at times to put the action in a place in time (writing out bills for merchants). I am conscious that you have to minimize the mundane and concentrate on framing it around the dialogue that is telling the reader something.

On the other hand, I've read a number of fantasies where the 'the little group' or 'fellowship' chat about the setting and it goes on and on, providing the writer a way to dump info. That gets boring quickly.

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MartinV
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I just finished a chapter that's mostly dialogue and it is an info dump. It comes in the middle of the story, however, so I think the reader would be glad of some information.

This concept (info-dump in a conversation) is the effect that comes from the "show don't tell" drilling. The writer wants to describe the setting and because a lecture from a narrator's perspective is clearly tell, writer will resort to a dialogue, hoping to squish info into a juicy dialogue. The problem is most writers don't know how to make the dialogue juicy.

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