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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:” http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-tools-of-dialogue
  2. Diana Urban. “43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately:” https://dianaurban.com/words-you-should-cut-from-your-writing-immediately
  3. Erin. Daily Writing Tips. “Dialogue Dos and Don’ts:” https://www.dailywritingtips.com/dialogue-dos-and-donts/
  4. Gabriela Pereira. “Nine NO’s of Dialogue:” https://diymfa.com/writing/nine-nos-of-dialogue
  5. Ginny Wiehardt. “Tips on Writing Dialogue:” https://www.thebalance.com/tips-on-writing-dialogue-1277057
  6. Ginny Wiehardt. “Top Tips for Writing Dialogue:” https://www.thebalance.com/top-tips-for-writing-dialogue-1277070.
  7. Gotham Writers. “In Dialogue, What is subtext?” https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/ask-writer/in-dialogue-what-is-subtext
  8. The Guardian.com. “Top 10: The Best Dialogue in Crime Fiction:”
  9. Harvey. Novel Writing Help. “9 Rules For Writing Dialogue:” https://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-dialogue.html
  10. Joan Y. Edwards. “What Is the Purpose of Dialogue in Your Story?” https://www.joanyedwards.com/2012/12/16/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?” https://joanneguidoccio.com/2012/06/20/how-much-dialogue-is-too-much/
  13. Joanna Penn. “9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue:” https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/10/04/dialogue-mistakes/
  14. John August. “How to Write Dialogue:” https://johnaugust.com/2007/how-to-write-dialogue
  15. Karen Sullivan, Gary Schumer, and Kate Alexander. “The Purpose of Dialogue:” http://purposeofdialogue.blogspot.com/
  16. Kira McFadden. “Ask the Editor: Is it okay to use sentence fragments in my writing? How much is too much?” http://www.novelpublicity.com/2012/03/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:” https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/writing-method-the-power-of-dialogue/
  18. Maeve Maddox. “How Much Dialogue Is Too Much:” https://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-much-dialog-is-too-much/
  19. Novel Writing Help.com “9 Rules for Writing Dialogue:” https://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-dialogue.html
  20. “Script Format: Dialogue:”  http://www.storysense.com/format/dialogue.htm
  21. What a Script.com. “13 Movie Dialogue Rules to Write Great Dialogues (part 2):” http://www.whatascript.com/movie-dialogue-03.html
  22. Word Counter Blog. “How Many Words in a Paragraph?” https://wordcounter.net/blog/2016/01/07/10986_how-many-words-paragraph.html
  23. William H. Coles. “Dialogue:” https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/

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

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