'Dialogue' is what happens when two or more people talk to each other. Correct? No. Dialogue is almost any speech act. Consider monologue. The dictionary defines it as a long speech by one person, usually boring. Yet it's still dialogue.
Why? Somebody is listening and responding, if only to tune it out.
But suppose nobody is listening? Maybe it's 'interior monologue' – a person is thinking privately, by themselves, to themselves.
That's still dialogue.
How come? When we think, somebody listens. Always.
Don't they? At least, our alter ego does.
Virtually all forms of speech or thought are dialogue because each speech act implies – to use a stuffy academic term – an 'interlocutor'. That's another person or entity, imaginary or not, who is inherent in the act.
I said 'virtually all forms'. If a radio, unattended, broadcasts a speech in an empty desert is that still dialogue? Probably not (short of a sentient camel). But the theory holds, in principle.
Sorry for that pedantic Definition of Terms. Are you still with me? Then we're sharing a dialogue! Yes, the theory does work.
How can we use these truisms - boring, I agree – to write better fiction?
Once we realize that 'dialogue' is, in essence, almost any speech act we are free to experiment with its forms. Let me show you just ten ways, but there's no limit to them:
1. Dialogue Tags.
Prophets of the New Brutalism would limit us to just two dialogue tags: 'he said/she said'. Even 'she responded' would be superfluous. Better still, we must have no dialogue tags. (They say.) Snippets of speech should scroll down the page, naked, their speakers evident from the context.
But it doesn't work, does it? After the third anonymous exchange, we've lost count of who said what to whom. And there goes the plot.
True, you don't need tags if your characters speak with blatantly different idioms, dialects or cadences.
'“It's a load of cobblers, guv.”Idioms like that are no trick if a story has only two or three characters. But what about ten?
“Please moderate your language, sir. There are ladies present.”'
Faulkner proposed an ingenious solution. He asked his publisher to print parts of The Sound And The Fury in different colours. (His intention was to indicate time shifts but he could equally have used separate colours to identify speakers.) Understandably, his publisher balked at the cost.
Yes, we do need dialogue tags.
But have you heard the edict that they should be like door hinges, functional but unseen? It's not always true. Look at the door hinges in ancient buildings. Some are flamboyant works of art, far more interesting than the doors themselves. Why should dialogue tags be different?
'“It's a blooming lie!” he expostulated.'In those cases, 'she said/he said' doesn't cut it.
Can't you just see his lips frothing?
'“My glass is empty,” he mourned.'
We share his tragedy.
'“Your soufflé is superb,” she lilted.'
The term 'lilt' says a lot about the lady.
2. The Radio Drama.
One workaround is to embed tags within the speech itself.
“Morning, Jim.”Now it's obvious who's speaking to whom. Have characters address each other by name at frequent intervals and the reader stays on track. Problem is, it's unnatural. It's reminiscent of those radio plays where, to help the listener, everybody continually reminds each other who they are.
“Good to see you, Nate.”
“Here comes Jim.” / “And look, Nate, he's bringing Carol with him!” / “Well, Nate, I've never seen your wife Carol look so pretty.” / “Stop it, Jim, you old flatterer.” And so on.Real people just don't speak that way, not all the time. Reserve this trick for the start of a scene, or the occasions when people first meet.
3. Dialogue Beats.
By convention, if an action or incident appears in the same paragraph as a speech act it relates in some way to that speaker. That's one definition of a 'dialogue beat'. Body language offers the simplest form of dialogue beat.
'“That's absurd.” One bushy eyebrow crept across his forehead and did a sly gavotte with the other.'Clearly, this is being said by the man with the dancing eyebrows.
Some trivial activity by the speaker can also identify them.
'Jane pushed the spaghetti around with her fork. “I suppose you think I'm mad but...”'We know, from the sentence that preceded the speech act, that Jane is the speaker.
Dialogue beats can be very subtle.
'Amsterdam is a cool place in winter but Jim was a very cool man. “Let's take in the Van Gogh Museum. Its pictures are uber-chic.”'The mere adjacency of Jim's name suggests that Jim is saying this. We don't need the tag 'he said'.
A dialogue beat within a line of speech is wonderfully versatile. In a few words, it might identify the speaker, add context or conflict, characterize people and break up a monotonous slab of text.
'“Listen close, you meathead” - he got up, slammed the door shut and glowered at me - “because I won't tell you twice.”'BTW: When a dialogue beat interrupts a speech sentence it should be enclosed in em dashes (or hyphens, if you're British). Otherwise, it can employ full stops in the usual way.
'“Shall we review the matter now?” John's clock ticked the hour. Time for lunch. “Later, I think.”'You can have great fun with interpolated dialogue beats. It's not always a fault (whatever the rule books say) to switch points of view within a passage of speech, provided you don't confuse the reader.
'Bella lifted an eyebrow. “I've never met anyone as rude as Freda. She sat here yesterday and positively barked at me” Whoof! came a sound behind the door; Bella's husband, I presumed. “Ignore him,” she continued.'4. The Nested Quote.
You can add vitality to dialogue by having a character quote somebody else, complete with their own body language and/or dialogue beats.
'Lafferty went on:“'How old is the property?' I asked Stuart. '1890s brickwork but' he shrugged and poured himself a coffee 'its foundations are much older.' I told him: 'I'll make you an offer.' We shook hands on it.”'That's one useful way to turn what might be a boring monologue into a simulation of two-way speech. Go back and have the speaker quote somebody else, perhaps with modest dramatics. A frame within a frame...
BTW: A modern convention is to insert a comma after a dialogue tag and before an open quote mark. ('He said, "Hello.") There's no logic in it. You can licitly use a colon or no punctuation mark at all.
5. The Hubbub Technique.
Sometimes you don't want to identify each speaker. Maybe everyone's speaking at once and you simply need to convey an effect of hubbub.
“Nice party” … “Go away” … “Doesn't our hostess look divine?” … Incoherent giggle … “Who's for chablis?” … Clink of glasses … “I'm surprised they let you in” … And so on.To run those snippets down the page, each with a carriage return, would waste paper and spoil the effect.
6. The Simulated Exchange.
When you need to convey the small details of a conversation, but they're trivial, pack it all tersely into one person's statement. Simenon did this inventively in At The Crossroads. A roguish garage owner is trying to charm the Chief-Inspector. Maigret barely says a word himself for four pages but we still get the impression of a two-way conversation.
“Go on, give us an apéritif! … A blackcurrant liquer, Chief-Inspector? … You want to go into the drawing room? … No? … So much the better! … I'm an easy-going sort of chap … That's right, isn't it, ducks? … No, not those glasses! … A couple of big glasses! ...” And so on.7. The Play Script.
If you want to be playful (and why not?), or give a passage a touch of irony or lampoon, you could switch – for a short time – into playscript mode. Here, several lords are conversing at a soirée hosted by Queen Elizabeth I. The playscript form burlesques the theatricality of the event.
'About me fluttered conversations soft and princely, steeped in scholarship and old port wine.But don't keep that up for more than a page or you will be writing a playscript.
A voice: “Spenser outdid himself in the last book of the Faerie Queen, wouldn’t you say?”
A chuckle: “Or undid himself.”
A wheeze: “Our good queen did not like it, not at all.”'
8. Concrete Poetry.
Who said narrative prose must be linear? It can take any shape you wish. Here are two lovers trying to chat intimately against the background of a television commercial.
“Why won't you marry me?”You can even use dialogue lines as pseudo-graphic elements to simulate the characters' movements. Here, two angry woman are chasing each other around a laundry, circa 1590.
It's all natural goodness at a price you'll love...
“I never said I wouldn't, darling. It's just that...”
Hurry! There's a big 50% saving if you apply now.
“You can't get over your ex-wife, can you?”
Offer must end Monday.
“Oh, shut up!”
(Well, Shakespeare might have understood it.)
9. Free Indirect Speech.
Virginia Woolf was renowned for her innovative blending of thought and speech. It replicates real life. Speech and thought are aspects of each other. Here, it's not clear what the narrator is vocalizing out loud, what she's day dreaming and how much is the voice of Woolf herself.
'And as she began to go with Miss Pym from jar to jar, choosing, nonsense, nonsense, she said to herself, more and more gently, as if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up when – oh! A pistol shot in the street outside! (Mrs Dalloway)'Caution: Too much of this has a narcotic effect. Some people are afraid of Virginia Woolf.
10. Rhetorical Questions.
Another way to liven up a story is to abandon your characters – at least, for a while – and chat directly to your reader. Used in moderation, rhetorical questions can create a quasi-dialogue between author and audience.
'Let us leave Mary to the consolations of her wheatgrass juice and see what Joan is up to in the jacuzzi. It might be more interesting, don't you think?'Establish a conversation between the author and reader early in the story, so they won't be surprised when you poke your head round the curtain. Then you won't even need rhetorical questions. For example:
'You can't help noticing the laburnum tree on your left and the fairy grotto. Look behind the pink gnome. Yes, there. Mind how you go. The path is very slippery with congealed blood...'Laurence Sterne played this trick outrageously in Tristram Shandy but it can still work, in some genres, if not over-done.
Do you agree with me that dialogue can take almost any form we wish (provided it works)? And that we should toss away the rule books? Whether you answer Yes or No, we're having a dialogue! So why not continue the dialogue by leaving a comment below? All comments get a fast thoughtful reply.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist and tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that get published in his free 14-part course at:
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft