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Peeve: duration of dialogue

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While I'm on the topic of my pet peeves about time in fiction, I may as well mention another one:

Two characters are talking. One of them tells a story that's written out, in full, as dialogue. (Or, often, monologue.) The dialogue takes two pages to write in full. There's no indication that the speaker has said anything more than what's on the page.

And then the narration says something like "While she had been speaking, hours had passed."

Reading a page from a story aloud takes about two minutes. A two-page monologue takes about four minutes to speak out loud. It does not take hours.

I notice this most often in a more subtle form: Two people sit down to dinner, and one of them begins speaking as soon as they order food. By the time that person is done speaking, two pages (four minutes) later, they've finished eating. Sure, there are probably pauses and gaps in the conversation while they eat (though the author doesn't mention such), but to make four minutes' worth of speech take even half an hour to get through would involve an awful lot of long pauses to eat.

This, too, is easy enough to fix. Mention in narration that this isn't all that was said during the meal: "Then talk turned to other matters." Or don't explicitly mention that the meal is over at the end of the monologue. Or make clear that what you're putting on the page is a summary of a much longer conversation. All sorts of options.

Just don't suggest that a two-page speech takes an hour to say out loud, 'cause it doesn't.

5 Comments

I'm inclined to think that writing out two-page speeches as dialogue is almost always a bad idea. It's got all the pitfalls you described, it's rarely realistic, and it's two pages when you can't do anything else with your foreground story (such as, for a trivial example, show other characters' reactions.) More than two pages is even worse.

(Yes, of course, there are exceptions, and there are writers who do this sort of thing well... but one shouldn't try to imitate them until one can tell when one's imitating them badly...)


And then the narration says something like "While she had been speaking, hours had passed."

I really hope the narration also says, "I got up and fetched her a glass of water," at some point.

I can't imagine listening to anyone talk for uninterrupted hours in a row. Yikes.


I'm so glad I'm not the only person who notices things like that. I notice the dinner scenarios most. They make me wonder when the food arrived, if the characters enjoyed it, or how the heck they managed to eat it in such a short period of time.


I agree with David. Two pages of dialogue sounds like a bad idea unless you have the skill to pull it off. I don't care how long it takes in reality. It would seem like hours to me, the reader. :^)


I suspect the time that passes in the scene is often on par with the time it took the author to write it. Alas, just like animators, we cannot create in real time. It's hell on the wrists.


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