by Anne R. Allen
I’ve been looking over some of my much-rejected early work and discovered my old stories have way too much dialogue. This is something I see in a lot of newbie fiction.
I remember a guy who came into the bookstore where I worked in the mid-1990’s, schlepping a huge carton of copies of his self-published novel. We agreed to give him a read, but I couldn’t get past chapter six. By then I still had no idea what the novel was about. Four guys were sitting in various places talking about relationships and politics. The book was nothing but dialogue. It read like a script that didn’t even have stage directions.
His characters needed to shut up already and get on with the story. If there was one. So did mine.
And yet, in all the standard how-to-write books, we’re urged to write: “More scenes! More dialogue!”
I think that’s because lot of classic books on writing, like Strunk and White came out before the TV era. They’re full of warnings against the author-intrusion and diary-like musings that come from imitating those wordy Victorian novels whose purpose was to fill long winter nights.
But most contemporary writers—at least most of us who are Boomers or younger—had our first exposure to fiction via movies and TV. Even if you were lucky enough to have parents who read books to you, the tele/screenplay format probably got cemented into your brain by constant exposure.
That means the stories in our heads tend to scroll by like episodes of Gunsmoke or Law and Order, rather than the chapters of A Little Princess or The Jungle Book.
I was an avid reader from the time I was five, but the serial dramas on The Mickey Mouse Club are what got hard-wired into my little brain.
Most contemporary writers don’t need warnings against addressing readers as “O Best Beloved,” or waxing poetic on the subject of Victorian food delicacies or the “great grey-green greasy Limpopo River.”
But we do need to beware of writing novels that read like bloated screenplays.