Dialogue is exhausting

I got exhausted reading a book to my daughter last night, and not just due to chronic lack of sleep, but also because the story included a whole lot of dialogue.  I think it might even be physiological, but I have no proof, it’s just a theory.

This realization (that my weariness was because I was speaking characters’ words) illustrated an excellent point that Douglas Bauer makes about dialogue in The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft.

His chapter on dialogue is worth reading in full, but the particular point I’m thinking of has to do with the idea of a sort of judicious (or ill-advised, liberal) use of dialogue.  His idea is that entering (reading) a story can be like going to a party: you see a couple across the room.  The reader can see them talking, one of the characters is holding a small dog, and something seems to be happening in the interaction, and so on.  (This would be the part of the story where the writer is summarizing and setting the scene.)   Asking readers to come closer, close enough to overhear (as it were) the characters speaking, can heighten drama and make the reading experience more urgent and interesting.  It’s also wholly more strenuous reading, which brings up the next point.

I see a lot of prose that has entirely too much dialogue.  Writers of fiction (and probably creative nonfiction) have a responsibility not to exhaust the reader by putting too many words between quotation marks.  I am all for demanding a lot of my reader.  But choosing to have my characters speak directly to a reader, I should be thoughtful and give the reader a break every so often.  A moment or two of pause, a look around the room, something to let the reader take a breath–even if the reader is reading silently.

At any rate, I should be careful about how I use the power of the spoken voice, reserving it for what matters most.