Dialogue in Novels

Some interesting thoughts on the function of dialogue in fiction. It’s something I always enjoy writing, but always seems to sprawl out of control: I like the suggestion that it should be an improvement on, not a mirror of real life conversation, and serve to advance the plot. What do you think?

Douglas W.T. Smith

It’s that time of the week – Discussion Tuesday.

From those who are new, each week I post a topic (relevant to my WIP) and try to unravel the mysteries and perspectives of it.
Last weeks topic was Information Dumps, it wasn’t as engaging as the week prior (Profanity in novels) nevertheless it still attracted some engagement. But if you did missed out you can contribute on the link above.

For now, this week’s topic is:


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7 thoughts on “Dialogue in Novels

  1. Interesting view, but personally, I disagree with a few points. Dialogue is not just to advance the scene. Dialogue can also provide character development. I really disagree with it not mirroring real-life dialogue. Taking out the Ums and Yeahs, then you are really left with nothing but a machine. The way a person speaks reveals a lot about who they are, where they came from, and how they act. Saying “Um, yeah I guess I could go.” Tells the reader that the person saying it may be apprehensive, shy, bored, unsure, etc. If we removed all that to further the story only, we might get something like “Yes, I can go.” What does that say about the character? When it comes to writing, though, it is as unique as the author. We all have different voices. I don’t think I have a voice, but I am sure my readers would be able to answer that, better than I. I write the story the character wants to be told. Just today I was arguing with Buck in Down the Cricket Hole because I never write like that, but it’s not my story to tell–it was his…I am just the tool used to tell it. Thanks for reblogging this, as I do not follow the original author. 🙂

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    • that’s a really interesting response, thank you! I was a little bit conflicted about the ‘dialogue to advance plot’ thing, as I’ve got an idea bubbling at the moment (I call it my WNIP, work not in progress!) is very much about the conversations between characters, and I think your comment has clarified for me that I do want the dialogue to provide character development.

      As for the real life conversation noises, the ums and ahs… I think I agree with both you and the OP. Throwing in the mumbles and stutters is very realistic, and makes it sound natural… but without the supporting visual imagery of body language, facial expression, all you’ve got is a lot of words on a page, which might not hold the reader’s attention. So I think I agree with you, yes, put some of those ums and ers in – but I also agree with Douglas, that you should not include as many as you’d hear in natural speech! Thanks for taking the time to comment though, between you and the original post it’s certainly given me much food for thought!

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      • Personally, I read my dialogue out loud to make sure it flows, or I’ll have someone else read it. As for the ums and ah’s etc. I use them sparingly and are usually character specific. I think it’s important to give characters… character and have their dialogue style reflect who they are realistically, but not real-world everyday conversation. Nobody wants to read about the mundane things they talk about with coworkers or how heavy the traffic was on the drive to work. I pick up a book to read stimulating dialogue that has a plot driven purpose and I want it to be interesting. I agree with not dumping information via dialogue, that’s what the narrative is for.

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      • That’s a good idea to read it out loud. I think the trick is to keep it from getting too slow and stodgy (unless you’re writing about a slow and stodgy character I guess).
        And I’m not sure if revealing information through dialogue is necessarily better or worse than through the narrative. If you’re writing in the 3rd person, and your character needs to find out some information, somebody needs to tell him and it can’t be the author surely?! So a little bit of information revealed through character dialogue is surely ok?

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      • I think if a character’s trait is to say ‘um’ or ‘like’ with every sentence then it is necessary. It would be like having Scout start calling Atticus ‘Dad’ because that’s the proper thing to call him. It changes the character and their relationship to others. Dialogue and action tags do that. Maybe the character says ‘um’ as an adult because as a child in school, it became a sign of protest and it just became part of their personality. For me, everything comes down to that character being a living, breathing being…faults and all.

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      • Now we’re getting into the realms of who controls the characters… is it the writer, or have they rebelled and demanded their own autonomy to say whatever they please?! I have at times had to rewrite my plot outline because a character insisted on figuring out what was going on and taking action, instead of just remaining in the dark and letting the plot unfold! (I reasserted my authority by not letting him get the girl at the end though!)

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      • Every time I start a new story, I don’t know what their story is…they tell it to me and I write it down for the world. I have been brought to tears by one of my characters mid-way through their story, and ended up yelling at another because he was blind to what was going on (yes, I was literally yelling at my computer–I’m weird). I have tried time and time again to control my characters, but end up giving up. I have several works-in-progress that are on the back burner simply because they characters and I are at odds. In one, I have a town mayor that wants to sneak into everyone else’s story and in another, the character refuses to do anything because they don’t like the setting…they want their story told in space and I really have never written sci-fi (which is weird seeing as how I am a Trekkie and Dr. Who fan…lol).

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