In the Study. With the Candlestick: How to Revise Dialogue-Heavy Scenes

My first drafts tend to look like murder mystery dinner parties.

While that’s partially due to my Clue obsession, it’s mostly due to my overreliance on dialogue. The protagonist goes to Character A, who gives them a bit of information, and then they go to Character B, who gives them some more information, and so on and so forth. When I first revised with my brilliant agent, she called these “talky scenes,” and pointed out that they get repetitive quickly.

Now I’m hyper-aware of dialogue-heavy scenes. When I revise, I pay close attention to them, and I ask myself the following questions:

  • What is the dialogue’s purpose?

When you go into writing a scene—any scene—it’s important to know the scene’s purpose. One common problem with early drafts is that long stretches of dialogue can feel very self-indulgent. Dialogue can be one of the best ways to figure out your characters and their relationships with each other, but that doesn’t mean that that dialogue needs to stay on the page.

Do those conversations drive the plot forward? Do they add depth to the character? Or are they just fun? If they’re just fun, then ask yourself if they’re really necessary. I love witty banter as much as the next person, but in order for it to retain its punch, it needs to be used with care.

If the dialogue definitely has a purpose, then the next question is:

  • Can the information contained here be better conveyed without dialogue?

When the dialogue is a rehash of information that the reader already knows, then the answer is often yes. While it may be critical to your plot that Mrs. Peacock tells Colonel Mustard something of great importance, it may not be necessary for the reader to see it unfold.

If we’re playing Mrs. Peacock’s point of view and we just found Mr. Boddy dead in the billiards room, we don’t necessarily need to see all the conversations that happen next. Assuming we’ve been with Mrs. Peacock all along, we probably already know all the gruesome details. It might be enough to say:

“I found a body,” said Mrs. Peacock, and she proceeded to tell the others what she saw.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, we do need to see the conversation! When in doubt, refer back to Question #1 to ask yourself about the dialogue’s purpose.

  • How does the dialogue-heavy scene fit into the surrounding scenes?

One talky scene isn’t usually a problem, but I’ve ready many manuscripts (including my own) where there is one dialogue-heavy scene after another. The trappings may change—different setting, different combination of characters—but the structure remains the same, making for repetitive storytelling.

If you start to see this pattern in your own work, ask yourself if there’s a way to mix things up. Instead of Professor Plum telling Miss Scarlett that he knows for certain that the murder weapon isn’t the candlestick, Miss Scarlett might figure that out on her own. Usually, that’s much more interesting for the reader.

* * *

Of course, none of these are hard and fast rules! Dialogue is a wonderful thing that adds liveliness to our stories. However, I often see it being used as a crutch, and these questions are meant to help prevent that.

Happy writing!

Assignment:

Take a scene with lengthy dialogue and try to rewrite it, using less dialogue this time around. Does it work? Why or why not?

Also, watch Clue. Seriously. See how it balances “talky scenes” with scenes driven by more action, and how all those “talky scenes” have a purpose (even when it seems they don’t!). Plus, it’s tons of fun!

Sam B. Farkas is the Subsidiary and Foreign Rights Associate at Jill Grinberg Literary Management, where she gets to combine her love of travel and books. In her own writing, she is drawn to the strange and the macabre, and she is represented by Patricia Nelson at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

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