Is Three Sentences a Charm for Dialogue?


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“Is Three Sentences a Charm for Dialogue?” by Joan Y. Edwards

Dialogue makes stories come to life. Readers hear the characters say the words in their minds Readers visualize their actions acting out their emotions.

Put a balance of dialogue, action, and narrative in your novel or screenplay.

Does your dialogue do all of the following?

  1. Establish character and reveal aspects of character not otherwise seen 
  2. Provide information like exposition and particulars of past events
  3. Drive action of plot forward
  4. Set the mood and tone
  5. Create subtext (Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe.)
Go with your gut feeling about your particular work. Check it against these questions:
  1. Is it part of a set up/pay off?
  2. Would it be hazardous if you left out a word or sentence or would deleting a word or sentence make your story stronger? 
  3. Is this the right place in the story for a particular sentence?
  4. Would the information in this sentence be better in the text than the dialogue?
  5. Would it be better if a different character spoke certain words?
  6. Do the sentences have enough meat in them? Are they too short or too long?
  7. If 3 sentences don’t tell enough, add one sentence at a time.
  8. If you’ve got 10 sentences in a piece of dialogue, cut out unnecessary words. Make the speech natural. Cut unnecessary sentences. 

Is there such a thing as too much dialogue in a novel or screenplay?  Or not enough? How do you get the Goldilocks amount of dialogue in your novel or screenplay?

William H. Coles said, “Great dialogue in literary fiction serves multiple functions but never detracts from story progress or purpose.”

I don’t think there’s one answer. I think dialogue is weighed against the personality and needs of a character in his/her particular situation. When a character is frightened, he might talk your ears off or he might be so quiet, you wonder if he’s passed out.
But there are people who tell you that three is the magic number to measure the use of sentences in your dialogue. They say that you need to justify using more than three sentences at one time.  

A film producer told me I had too many sentences in the dialogue of my screenplay. He said that you can justify more dialogue in novels or in stage plays, but not in screenplays. So I did research to find out what was an acceptable amount of dialogue.
Listen to the dialogue of your favorite film. Count the number of sentences whenever the protagonist (main character) speaks for 15 minutes. Then count the number of sentences the antagonist or another character speaks. What did you discover? You may find the results surprising. I did.
I looked at three different screenplays and it seems they stuck to the 3 sentences per time a character speaks. Sometimes a character on the Royal Staff  in Victoria and Abdul screenplay spoke more than 3 sentences, but it didn’t seem like there were more than 5 at one time. Their sentences tended to be longer but usually stayed in the three sentence realm.
Decide for yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Check the dialogue of characters in your manuscripts. See how many sentences your characters utter at a time. 
If your characters have a lot to say, perhaps you can break it down into different speeches. 
I’ll leave you with a few quotes and 33 different resources about dialogue.

Tinzen Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama says, “Dialogue is the most effective way of resolving conflict.”
Stephen King says, “It is dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.”
Alfred Hitchcock said: “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”
Alfred Hitchcock said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.”

  1. Brian A. Klems. “The 7 Tools of Dialogue:”
  2. Diana Urban. “43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately:”
  3. Erin. Daily Writing Tips. “Dialogue Dos and Don’ts:”
  4. Gabriela Pereira. “Nine NO’s of Dialogue:”
  5. Ginny Wiehardt. “Tips on Writing Dialogue:”
  6. Ginny Wiehardt. “Top Tips for Writing Dialogue:”
  7. Gotham Writers. “In Dialogue, What is subtext?”
  8. The “Top 10: The Best Dialogue in Crime Fiction:”
  9. Harvey. Novel Writing Help. “9 Rules For Writing Dialogue:”
  10. Joan Y. Edwards. “What Is the Purpose of Dialogue in Your Story?”
  11. Joan Y. Edwards. “Whose Talking? Can You Tell by Your Dialogue?” Who’s Talking? Can You Tell by the Dialogue?
  12. Joanna Guidoccio. “How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?”
  13. Joanna Penn. “9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue:”
  14. John August. “How to Write Dialogue:”
  15. Karen Sullivan, Gary Schumer, and Kate Alexander. “The Purpose of Dialogue:”
  16. Kira McFadden. “Ask the Editor: Is it okay to use sentence fragments in my writing? How much is too much?”
  17. Laurel Dewey, Visual Thesaurus. “Writing Methods: The Power of  Dialogue:”
  18. Maeve Maddox. “How Much Dialogue Is Too Much:”
  19. Novel Writing “9 Rules for Writing Dialogue:”
  20. “Script Format: Dialogue:”
  21. What a “13 Movie Dialogue Rules to Write Great Dialogues (part 2):”
  22. Word Counter Blog. “How Many Words in a Paragraph?”
  23. William H. Coles. “Dialogue:”

Giveaway Complete January 26, 2018. Come back. There will be others.

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Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2018 Joan Y. Edwards
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24 thoughts on “Is Three Sentences a Charm for Dialogue?”

  1. Joan, another problem is when a person’s statement goes on for more than a paragraph, for example when making a speech. In that case, I do my best to insert something else between the succeeding paragraphs of dialogue. This could be a thought, bodily sensation, memory, or observation of the witness to the scene, who may or may not be the speaker.

    1. Dear Dr. Bob,
      Thank you very much for writing. You’re exactly right. A long speech can be broken up by thoughts, bodily sensations, memories, or observations of the witness to the scene, who may be or may not be the speaker.. Thanks for sharing your experience.
      Do something fun today!
      Never Give Up

  2. After reading this, I went back into my WIP and checked the dialogue for sentences. So far, so good. Thanks for the timely post, Joan.

    1. Dear Gretchen,
      Thank you very much for writing. You’re welcome. I’m glad that you checked your WIP and discovered that you didn’t have too much dialogue.
      Do something fun!

  3. The 3 sentence rule is a good one but only if used as a guide. Write the dialogue that fits the character and the story. Tighten it. Sharpen it. Make it zing. And if there are more than 3 sentences, go with it.
    Sometimes we as writers believe everything we read is an absolute. There are always exceptions.
    Another great blog. Thanks Joan!

    1. Dear Sandra,
      Thanks for writing. You’re welcome. Of course, you wouldn’t delete sentences of dialogue without checking to see if they are essential to your manuscript or screenplay. Using 3 sentences as a guide may help. Maybe you need 6 or 7 sentences in places. You’re right. Every manuscript is different.
      Do something fun for you.

  4. Hi, Joany,
    A dialogue in three sentences could or could not be ample whatever fits your story and the characters fully come to life. I believe the characters in a story their dialogue must leave something to the imagination of the reader.
    As always your topic is interesting and valuable.

    1. Dear Violette,
      Thank you for writing. You are right. Three sentences could or could not be ample for your story to help bring the characters to life. Thanks for saying my topic is interesting and valuable. You make me smile.
      Do something fun

  5. Never heard this “3 sentence rule” but I think I do that intuitively. Thanks for all the links! No need to enter me since I just won off your blog.

    1. Dear Carol,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad that you believe you do the 3 sentences rule intuitively. You’re welcome for all the links. I will honor your wishes and not enter you in the running to win this book.
      Do something fun today!
      Rejoice in the Lord
      Never Give Up

    1. Dear Sheri,
      Thank you for writing. I am glad you believe I gave you wonderful information! You’re welcome for my sharing. I love to share.
      Enjoy your day being your sweet self!
      Never Give Up

  6. Whoa, Joan! Thanks for the ton of juicy information on dialogue. I will check out the three-line guide next time I listen to my fave Victoria, the PBS/BBC telly series (winking here).

    1. Dear Cat,
      Thanks a bunch for writing. I’m glad you thought the information I gave you on dialogue was “juicy!” You made me smile. Listening to your favorite TV shows and movies is a good way to gauge dialogue length. Hold up a finger each time a sentence gets to your ears during a conversation. It’s only a guide, not a steadfast rule. but I’m glad you believe it will help.
      Do something fun today
      Celebrate being an author
      Never Give Up

  7. I am grateful for the following people who left a comment for before midnight, Friday, January 26, 2018.

    1. Melanie Robertson-King
    2. Dr. Bob Rich
    3. Linda Garfield
    4. Gretchen Griffith
    5. Sandra Warren
    6. Violette Early
    7. Lisa Anne Cullen
    8. Sheri Levy
    9. Cat Michaels

    Carol Baldwin left a comment but didn’t want to be included because she won a book last time. Thanks, Carol. chose number 4. Therefore, Congratulations, Gretchen Griffith. You won a paperback copy of Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number. I hope you enjoy it. Please send your snail mail address to me at so I can start this book’s journey to you!
    Never Give Up

    1. Dear Gretchen,
      I love your sense of humor. Thanks for leaving a comment letting readers know you found out about getting a copy of “I’ve Got Your Number.”
      Never Give Up

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