query problems · writing problems

Dialogue, narrative, and exposition

One writer wrote in their query that their novel was 75% dialogue. While that’s not info we need, in this case it helped me decide.


The author, a screenwriter, said the story’s heavy dialogue would adapt well for film. Sure enough, the sample pages had two sentences setting the scene followed by lines of dialogue. No action, no threads of emotion, no dialogue tags. By line 4, I couldn’t keep the two speakers straight.

The author had written a script, not a novel.

Novels balance dialogue, narrative, and exposition. Or: talking, what’s happening, and descriptions of people and places.

There’s no formula for getting the balance right. But here are few guidelines:

  1. Dialogue and narrative need to make up most of the story: let exposition take a backseat.
  2. Read books in and outside your genre to tune your sense of pacing. See how different styles affect the way a scene feels. Good reading makes good writing more instinctual.
  3. If a character can say it — naturally — let them say it. Dialogue should be the foreground. Aim for more than 25%, but not as high as 75%.

As always, if you break the rules well, you can ignore anything I say.


2 thoughts on “Dialogue, narrative, and exposition

  1. As a nice exercise sometime, have a read of one of Dashielle Hammett’s short stories (or better yet, read The Maltese Falcon). He was a master of using dialog over exposition, as well as integrating first-person narrative with dialog.


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