Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Sure. We’ve all overindulged in our favorite foods before. No matter how much we might like sweets or any other type of food, something can be too sweet, too rich, too whatever.
“[T]he challenge is to find a balance of the character’s internalization. … [H]ow many reactions do you need? Do you need them every other sentence? Even if it’s relevant to the conflict at hand, sometimes the character’s voice can be too much.”
The Dangers of “Too Much”
Too much of anything in our writing, including voice, can be a bad thing. Too much uninterrupted dialogue leads to the “floating heads” issue, where we lose touch with the setting and surrounding events. Too much uninterrupted action can feel choppy or like, “and then this happened, and then that happened.” Too much introspection drags down the pacing.
Similarly, too much voice can make a character seem self-involved, the type who’s too chatty, too much in love with the sound of their voice. Sections with a lot of voice are often internalizations (introspection or internal monologue), which can slow down the pace of the storytelling. Remember that on some level, internalization is made up of passive, telling sentences without action happening in a setting.
I’ve read stories—NY published stories—that suffer from this “too much voice” issue. The protagonist was too wrapped up in her oh-so-clever-or-amusing observations. And her overly snarky attitude was wearying to read for a whole novel.
I’ve read other stories where the internalizations felt repetitive, like the character was telling us the same thing over and over, or telling us something we’d already figured out from the narrative description. It’s very easy to use a good voice to the point of overkill.
How Can We Know If It’s Too Much?
So how much is too much?
The first thing we can check for is the repetitive or overkill issue. Have we used two sentences of voice-y internalization when one gets the point across? Good beta readers can help with this problem, especially if we ask for specific feedback on whether we’ve erred on the side of overkill.
The second thing we can check for is repetition on the paragraph level. This means making sure we haven’t used several paragraphs in a row of the same writing technique.
At a workshop I attended a few years ago, Karen Rose gave the advice that we should interrupt narrative every two paragraphs with dialogue or internalization. I think that’s good advice in general, for all elements of writing.
The Two-Paragraph Guideline
Action, description, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. should all be mixed up to keep a reader’s interest. We’ve heard that readers can follow three paragraphs of unattributed dialogue (assuming there are only two speakers), but after that, readers need a descriptive dialogue tag or an action beat to ground them in the scene again. On the other end, static setting description starts getting boring after one (short) paragraph. So two paragraphs of any one writing element in a row is a good guideline.
If we need more than two paragraphs of introspection, we might look at how we can mix in action. Is the character doing something while they’re thinking? Even better, can we make the action add to the scene by creating conflict or showing subtext?
Maybe a wife is thinking about leaving her husband while she’s folding laundry. Does she discover a lipstick stain on his shirt, and she decides that’s the last straw? Or does she take care in folding his clothes “just so” to prevent wrinkles, showing that she still cares about him?
Our writing toolbox has many tools, and we’ll be better writers if we use them all. As we’re editing, we can use this two paragraph guideline to check our writing, especially in sections where the pacing feels slow. And as we receive feedback from our beta readers, we can listen to their comments about whether we’ve used a tool “too much.”
Have you read stories with too much voice? What made it feel like too much? Do you struggle with sentence or paragraph repetition? Have you heard of this two-paragraph guideline before? Do you agree or disagree with it?Pin It