Written by JJ Barnes
If your book is too dialogue heavy, it can read like a script. You don’t get to know the environment your characters are in or connect with their interiority in a way that you can relate to their emotions. However, if your book is too prose heavy it’s the opposite. It can make it hard to get to know the characters because so much of how we ground ourselves in our characters is in how they communicate with each other. So, it’s important to strike a good prose to dialogue ratio.
Technically there is no right or wrong answer. You can’t give an exact ratio number, because tit’s a matter of personal taste. For some people, the heavy layered prose, the lengthy descriptions and flowery language, is what appeals in fiction.
So, if you love to write in that style, and your audience loves to read in that style, then there’s no need to stop doing that. However, talking in general terms, for a broader and less niche appeal, finding a balance is important.
Use Your Prose To Dialogue Ration To Make Your Story Easy to Read
When you drop too much prose, your readers can be left wondering who’s spoken. I’ve had to count down lines from the last character marker to work out who said a pertinent line in a long conversation.
You don’t want to put “Jon said” and “Jude said” on every single line in a conversation. In a conversation between two people that’s going to be pretty obvious. But, if you drop the prose to the point where it’s confusing, you’re going to boot your audience out. It requires the reader to put effort into working out who spoke, rather than thinking about what they’re saying.
Who knows what, and how they deliver that information, is very plot relevant so it should be obvious to the reader when they do it. Confusion over who spoke is a writing failure. Your prose to dialogue ratio needs to accommodate for clarity of communication.
As soon as you’re outside of the story trying to work out who spoke, you’re no longer absorbed by the story and the words on the page, you’re outside that story trying to fight your way back in but blocked by the fact you need to do maths down the page to work out how to get back on track.
If you have a very conflict-dense scene where two characters are arguing passionately on either side of a moral dilemma, such as whether or not they should kill the bad guy, it could be obvious who spoke based on their opinions without needing character markers, so technically you could get away without it. But, it’s important to remember, reading a script is a very different experience to reading a book.
Set the Scene
Even if your characters are clearly labelled, a script is a working document. It’s designed to be used where the actors, the director, the cinematographer, the set designers, are filling in the spaces around those lines. In a book, you have nobody to do that work for you.
You need to provide that information to allow your audience to see in their head where your characters are and how they’re feeling about it based on their actions and emotions. If your story is not alive with prose, it’s not a relaxing read. Your audience has to try and fill in the spaces around the words themselves.
Dropping the dialogue so much that you never get to know your characters because you’re spending so much time describing what they look like, the room they’re in, the smell of the air, the emotions your characters feel, means your audience will get bored.
We want to read your characters communicating with one another. Your story is about what a character wants and how they go about getting it. That means they have to communicate those wants.
If they never go after something or want something, because you’re too busy describing things around them, then your character will have no humanity. Humanity in a character is what draws your audience into caring enough about them to read their story to the end.Keep Your Story Moving Forwards By Balancing The Prose To Dialogue Ratio
Prose-heavy writing can lead to your story standing still. A stagnant story feels like a trudging read. Action, motivation and conflict keep the story dynamic. You need characters to communicate and disagree, and it keeps your story alive and interesting.
If you’re going nowhere, your story will feel pointless. When you’re describing everything instead of having your characters be busy, there’s no draw for your reader to keep reading. As soon as your readers can’t be bothered to read one book, they won’t bother coming back to any future books, and you’re going to lose your audience.
Using a Point of View Character
A good way to find a balance is to stick to a point of view character in your scene. Focus on how that one character feels about what’s going on. Look at how they feel about the place they’re in. How they feel about the other character’s behaviour.
If you stick to one character in that scene you can build your prose around them. You’re less likely to go on at length with rambling prose because your character is focused on the scene at hand. But, you will give descriptions and details because your character will have emotions and feelings about the scene.
A point of view character doesn’t know how everybody else feels, they know how they feel. They don’t focus on every detail in the room they’re in, but they do focus on what affects them directly. Your readers get to know the environment and feelings through their prose directly, but you still have the dialogue.
Your characters will communicate with your POV character and you’ll get their interpretation of how those other characters behave. You’ll have your POV character communicate with others and see what they choose to reveal and how they choose to reveal it.
With different point of view characters you have the opportunity to flex prose-heavy muscles if you do enjoy the flowery language, because different characters will have different personalities and different interiorities. If one of your characters has a description dense style, you can get that style into your story, but not so much that it’s a constant tedious read. You just have to make sure they’re balanced against less prose-heavy characters.
Find Your Own Style
As always, if you find an audience that particularly likes to read scripts, and you particularly like to write scripts, then you’re fine. If you like to write lengthy descriptions and find an audience that likes to read them, then crack on. But mostly, a balance is important.
Your story can lean more towards prose, or more towards dialogue. But finding a way to get both the story and conflict active through the dialogue, and enough description that your audience has an emotional connection to your characters, is what to aim for with your prose to dialogue ratio.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose