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Dialogue

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English Literature

The Before trilogy is a collection of three films - Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) - all released about nine years apart. The films follow the relationship of Jesse and Celine, who originally met on a train to Paris. The films are lauded for their effortless, beautiful dialogue. Jesse and Celine talk about love, life, and religion as they stroll through the streets of Paris, the conversation taking them from place to place.

Dialogue is an important part of film, literature, and life. But let's go back to basics; what is the role of dialogue in literature, and why is it such an important literary element?

Meaning of dialogue in literature

Dialogue is a key element of a literary or artistic work. Not all literature needs to have dialogue, but it features prominently in drama, films, and in novels.

Dialogue

In literature, dialogue is a spoken exchange, usually between two or more characters in a written work.

When a conversation is depicted as a spoken exchange between two or more speakers, then this is direct dialogue. When a conversation is summarised by the narrator, and the reader does not actually experience the exchange, this is called indirect dialogue.

Because indirect dialogue is a retelling of a dialogue, rather than a dialogue in itself, it is considered a narrative technique rather than a type of dialogue.

At the end of Pride and Prejudice (1813), Elizabeth and Darcy resolve their issues with each other, and she accepts his proposal. Elizabeth and Darcy's conversation is written as a combination of direct and indirect dialogue:

He then told her of Georgiana’s delight in her acquaintance, and of her disappointment at its sudden interruption; which naturally leading to the cause of that interruption, she soon learnt that his resolution of following her from Derbyshire in quest of her sister had been formed before he quitted the inn, and that his gravity and thoughtfulness there had arisen from no other struggles than what such a purpose must comprehend.

- Jane Austen

Internal dialogue

Literature also features internal dialogues. This is a conversation that a character has with themselves but is not actually spoken out loud.

In Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys, the narration of the elderly Sasha Jensen often includes internal dialogues:

I order sole and white wine. I eat with my eyes glued on my plate, the feeling of panic growing worse. (I told you not to come in here, I told you not to.)

Brackets are often used to depict these internal dialogues that reveal the narrator as someone who is deeply self-conscious and self-critical.

Socratic dialogue

Socratic dialogue is a literary form, whereby philosophical ideas are held up to scrutiny through a series of questions and answers. Socratic dialogue originated in Ancient Greece. Socrates was Plato's teacher, and the majority of Plato's prose is written as a conversation between Socrates and less-knowledgeable men, wherein Socrates uses a question and answer method to tease out the inconsistencies in their opinions in order to arrive at wise philosophical conclusions.

Socratic dialogue does not require Socrates to be the main character. Anyone can have and write a Socratic dialogue, wherein the goal of the conversation is to uncover the truth about a certain topic.

We won't be focusing on dialogue as a literary form here, but rather as a literary element.

Purpose of dialogue

Dialogue is a storytelling technique. While it is true that dialogue is used for exposition and characterisation, what's key to note is that dialogue is also just a way of telling a story. Great dialogue does not simply serve one mechanical function like providing context, or fleshing out a character. Great dialogue effortlessly does all these things, while making for an exciting reading experience.

The purposes of dialogue include:

Exposition

It provide context and useful information to the reader. Expository dialogue is usually found at the beginning of a film or book to help get the audience settled into the world of the story.

'Can we take the shortcut down that dark alley?', said Richie.

'No, we can't go down that alley, Richie, don't you know last year someone was murdered there!', said Martha.

Characterisation

How characters speak and what they speak about reveal a lot about their character. How characters speak to one another also reveals the nature of their relationship.

Analysing characterisation through dialogue

Pay attention to the tone used by different characters in a dialogue. What are their attitudes toward what they are talking about, and the person they are speaking to? Do they speak in an earnest, pleasant tone or a bitter, sarcastic tone? Do they wear their heart on their sleeve or are they reserved and secretive?

It is also useful to pay attention to the words they choose. Do they reveal a certain subtext - a hidden meaning? Why is that character not just speaking in an up-front, honest manner? Could they be hiding something?

Advance the plot

Dialogue helps move the plot along, by inciting action. Characters learn new information, they agree or disagree with one another, they confront one another, they work things out, and they come to a certain conclusion. It is often through dialogue, as it is in life with conversation, that resolution is achieved. How many mysteries in literature and film are born of characters failing to communicate effectively with one another?

Present different perspectives

Dialogue presents different ways of thinking so that we can avoid simply siding with the protagonist - the person we are likely to spend the most time with and therefore have an unfair bias towards. By hearing different voices speak within a text, we are exposed to a different way of seeing the world.

Storytelling

Let's not lose the forest for the trees. We shouldn't get too lost in the practical functions of dialogue that we miss the fact that dialogue is a way of telling a story. Stories are not just told through narration, they are told through interactions between characters.

Dialogue in prose with examples

In works of prose, narration can also be used to supplement dialogue, adding a layer of significance to it. Narration can give the reader an insight into how a character really feels inside, and what they really want to say.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys is an example of a novel that uses first-person narration alongside dialogue to provide crucial insights into the dialogue. The novel is Rhys' prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), from the perspective of the 'madwoman in the attic', Antoinette, and Mr Rochester.

In a heated argument between Antoinette and Rochester, we get an insight into how Rochester feels about having accepted a lot of money from Antoinette's family to marry her, without being made aware of her history of mental illness.

'No, I would say – I knew what I would say. 'I have made a terrible mistake. Forgive me.'

I said it, looking at her, seeing the hatred in her eyes – and feeling my own hate spring up to meet it. Again the giddy change, the remembering, the sickening swing back to hate. They bought me, me with your paltry money. You helped them to do it. You deceived me, betrayed me, and you'll do worse if you get the chance ...'

- Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

The narration here provides an insight into Rochester's perspective we wouldn't get from dialogue alone. The supplementary narration shows Rochester's train of thought and explains why he ended up cruelly locking Antoinette in the attic at Thornfield.

These are the traditional dialogue tags used to present dialogue in works of English literature:

  • Quotation marks.
  • A verb describing speech. For example, 'he said', 'he shouted'.
  • The name of the character who is speaking.
  • Line breaks.

Here's an example of dialogue in a novel.

"Blessed be the fruit," she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.

"May the Lord open," I answer, the accepted response.

Margaret Atwood, 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1985)

By using dialogue, Margaret Atwood illustrates how the handmaids' speech has been limited to a few acceptable remarks pertaining to their role in Gilead, which is to provide the Commanders with children.

Why might authors not use dialogue tags?

Although dialogue tags are useful in literature, authors may also choose to do away with traditional ways of writing dialogue to create dialogue that flows more seamlessly, or to communicate a specific style and meaning.

For example, in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) some lines of speech are written in the narration without quotation marks, but followed up with a 'she said'. This stylistic choice adds to the flow of the novel's narration.

As for her little bag, might he not carry that? No, no, she said, she always carried THAT herself.

Dialogue in drama

Dialogue is a very important aspect of drama since most plays are dialogue-based. In a drama text, dialogue is signposted with:

  • The name of the character preceding their speech
  • Adverbs describing the tone of the line
  • Accompanying actions
  • Line breaks.

Here's an example from Tennessee Williams' famous play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) that demonstrates the dialogue tags used in drama:

MITCH:

Hello. [He stares at her.]

STELLA:

Blanche, this is Harold Mitchell. My sister, Blanche DuBois.

MITCH [with awkward courtesy]:

How do you do, Miss DuBois.

- Scene 3, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

Dialogue is used to depict this first meeting between the characters as awkward.

Dialogue in narrative poetry

Dialogue is also used in narrative poetry.

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story, using traditional storytelling elements such as plot, characters, dialogue, conflict, and resolution.

Dialogue in poetry can have more or less the same dialogue tags that are used in prose.

A famous example of a narrative poem that uses dialogue is Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven' (1845), about a man whose mourning for his dead lover is interrupted by a crow's rap at the window.

On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

In this poem, dialogue is used to characterise the speaker and to stimulate action.

The speaker wants to find meaning in the crow's refrain of 'nevermore', and he asks the bird questions he knows it will only answer with 'nevermore'. He asks if there is a cure for his suffering, the crow says there will never be. The speaker's dialogue with the crow brings about a resolution, as it leads to his acceptance of death's inevitability in the final lines of the poem.

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

What makes good dialogue?

Often what makes for good dialogue in fiction is that it be credible and realistic. Characters should speak to one another as people do in the real world. Realistic, credible dialogue flows naturally without drawing attention to itself in order to immerse the reader in the world of the story.

But the difference between dialogue and real-world conversation is that dialogue must often serve a narrative purpose. If a bit of dialogue doesn't further the story in some way, this is seen as bad writing. In real life, however, we often talk to each other just to fill in the silence and to pass the time, without any grand purpose in mind (unless you are a businesswoman trying to secure a business deal).

However, not all writers strive for realism in their work. While realism and credibility may aid the overall meaning of some texts, other writers may want to do something entirely different with their dialogue to convey their unique meaning. Writers may adopt purposefully unrealistic and even absurd dialogue to suit their artistic goals.

That is exactly how Samuel Beckett uses dialogue in his absurdist play, Waiting for Godot (1953), a play about two men waiting for a man named Godot who, spoiler alert, never comes.

Absurdist fiction explores the meaninglessness of life by creating senseless scenarios and employing literary elements and techniques, such as dialogue and action, in an absurd way.

The dialogue of the characters is not realistic in a traditional sense, it is short and snappy and nonsensical. The dialogue does not drive the story forward, as the two men talk to merely 'pass the time'.

VLADIMIR:

Ah yes, the two thieves. Do you remember the story?

ESTRAGON:

No.

VLADIMIR:

Shall I tell it to you?

ESTRAGON:

No.

VLADIMIR:

It'll pass the time. (Pause.) Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our

Saviour. One—

ESTRAGON:

Our what?

But Beckett's use of dialogue tries to represent a truth about how humans often talk to one another. Beckett's use of dialogue is a commentary on the futility of human conversation: how we often speak to each other not to communicate, but to avoid a void of silence that leaves us alone with our thoughts; alone to confront the meaninglessness of life.

As we have seen, dialogue is an important literary element. So important, in fact, that some literary theorists even go so far as to say that good literature should be a sort of dialogue; an open-ended discussion that fleshes out different worldviews, rather than promoting a singular way of seeing the world.

Dialogue - Key takeaways

  • Dialogue is a spoken exchange between two or more characters in a written work. In literature, there is direct and indirect dialogue.
  • Dialogue is used in prose, drama, and even in poetry. Narration is often used to supplement dialogue and add insights into what is being said.
  • Common dialogue tags include quotation marks, line breaks, speech verbs, and adverbs. Authors can do away with dialogue tags to suit their own artistic goals.
  • Some examples of effective uses of dialogue in literature are The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, Edgar Allen Poe's poem 'The Raven' (1845), and Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot (1953).

Dialogue

Dialogue is a spoken exchange between two or more characters in a written work. This includes novels, films, etc.

Dialogue is used in literature to provide exposition, to develop a character and to move the story along. Dialogue is also used to provide different perspectives.

Dialogue is typically written with dialogue tags, such as quotation marks, a verb describing the speech, the name of the character who has spoken and a line break. However, authors may decide not to use these common dialogue tags, to fit the style and meaning of their story.

In fiction stories, dialogue is often written in a realistic and credible way, with characters speaking as they would in normal life. The dialogue flows as a normal conversation would flow. However, authors can also write dialogues that are deliberately non-realistic to convey a specific meaning.

An example of dialogue is the exchanges between the handmaids in The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. When handmaids meet one another, they are not free to speak as they wish but must comply with language that is acceptable in the state of Gilead. Offred's shopping partner, Ofglen, greets her with, 'Blessed be the fruit,'' she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.' Offred replies with '"May the Lord open," I answer, the accepted response.'

Final Dialogue Quiz

Question

What is dialogue?

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Answer

Dialogue is a spoken exchange between two or more characters in a written work.

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Question

Can a single person have a dialogue?

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Answer

No - dialogue is between two or more people only.

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Question

What is direct dialogue?

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Answer

Direct dialogue is a conversation depicted as a spoken exchange between two or more people.

Show question

Question

What is indirect dialogue?

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Answer

A conversation that is summarised by the narrator.

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Question

What is Socratic dialogue?

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Answer

A literary form where a question and answer method is used to try to discover truths about a particular topic.

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Question

Dialogue is used for what purposes?

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Answer

  • Exposition
  • Characterisation
  • Advancing the plot
  • Presenting different perspectives
  • Storytelling

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Question

What are dialogue tags?

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Answer

Dialogue tags mark dialogue. Dialogue tags usually include:

  • quotation marks
  • verbs (he said, she said)
  • the name of the person speaking
  • line breaks

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Question

Why might authors choose to not use dialogue tags?

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Answer

  • So that the dialogue can run more smoothly on the page
  • To convey a specific style or meaning.

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Question

What is a literary form where you might not expect to find dialogue?

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Answer

Drama

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Question

Why is dialogue used in narrative poetry?

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Answer

Because narrative poetry is poetry that makes use of traditional storytelling elements, which includes dialogue.

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Question

Good dialogue must be written in a realistic and credible way.

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Answer

True - good dialogue flows naturally without drawing attention to itself in order to immerse the reader in the world of the story.

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