I’ve been watching reruns of the old 80s show Magnum P.I. One of the characters is an Englishman named Jonathan Higgins who served in Her Majesty’s military, and has any number of stories to tell about his exploits. Except, he usually launches into those long-winded accounts in the most inopportune times.
In short, Higgins talks too much. He bores most of the characters in the show because he is long-winded, going into apparently needless detail about time, setting, background, before he ever gets to the “what happened.”
Many of us know people in real life who talk too much, too. It’s easy to nod and smile and let our minds drift when this person is talking because there’s a lot of unnecessary fluff before our dear friend/relative reaches the heart of the matter.
Recently I’ve realized my characters fall into this same camp–they say things that aren’t particularly necessary. Surprise, surprise, when they talk too much, their dialogue has the same effect on readers as too much talking has in real life.
What constitutes too much talking in a novel? Here are some of the most common dialogue story stoppers:
1. Speaking in complete sentences. We almost never do in real life, so why should our characters? In this version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” the characters all speak in complete sentences (even the mirror, though an example of such isn’t included in these lines):
- As Snow White grew prettier with every passing day, the Queen’s jealousy and anger grew. At last unable to bear Snow White’s beauty any longer, she called her Huntsman and said to him, ‘Take the child into the forest, and kill her, and bring back her heart and her tongue as proof that she is dead.’
The Huntsman did as the Queen asked – he took the little girl into the forest and prepared to kill her. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ cried Snow White, looking in terror at his big sharp knife. ‘I will run away into the forest and never come back again.’ The Huntsman relented, and let her go. The child ran off through the trees deep into the forest. ‘The wild beasts will kill you, you poor child,’ thought the Huntsman to himself.
2. Answering questions with more information than the other character is asking.
“Why did your squad fail to join us outside Ariel?”
“After the assault at Ringal Peak, we departed under instructions from Eljosh to explore the area around Ariel. When we arrived at the city, we detected no activity, friendly or otherwise. We decided to take a closer look and found it deserted. We headed back to report, but an enemy platoon blocked us. We nearly marched into their camp. . . “
I’ll spare you the rest, but this answer continued for another five sentences.
3. Giving speeches or reports or telling stories (see Jonathan Higgins). Of course, there are exceptions: if the character can tell stories in an engaging manner, an occasional story may be appropriate. Or if being long-winded is part of his character, then at least the opening of a boring story can serve that purpose.
4. Telling a character what happened in a previous scene. This is often a rehash:
“Can you believe we made it?”
“I thought we’d die. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, Fred, I hate to think what might have happened.”
“It wasn’t just Fred. You were fearless, too, Lilliana. Why, you stared that old crocodile down as if . . .”
Yes, yes, we know! We just read the scene!!
5. Delivering information that both characters know or ought to know.
- “You know, Uncle John, my dad, Harry Thomas, was the youngest in your family.”
This example is an exaggeration, to be sure, but any information that the author is delivering to the reader rather than one character revealing to another, needs to go.
There’s an old fable about a too talkative turtle whose end was not a happy one because he didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth closed. In the same way, stories with characters who are too talkative may suffer a sad demise. Readers will become impatient with long-winded, wordy conversations that add nothing new. And we know what happens to books when readers get impatient!