Using Dialogue in Fiction: This Is a Debate?

Voice of Hobgoblin and Gargoyle

I was a little confused when I stumbled onto the debate about the use of dialogue in fiction.  At first, I thought it was the method or amount of use, which is probably how it started.  By the time I showed up to listen, the people were divided into two camps.  One claiming that dialogue is an essential tool of storytelling and the other saying that it was an archaic trope that is no longer necessary.  Well . . . I’m only going to touch on what I think about dialogue because I’m sure this differs depending on the person.

As I’ve stated many times over the years, I write in third person present tense.  This means you’re reading stuff as it unfolds and it’s through a spectator perspective instead of a first person narrator.  Because of this, I can’t really use flashbacks to cover explanations of places and events.  It’s clunky and disjointed if I’m leaping through time periods when I write in this style.  I can jump forward, but the past becomes the present if I go there and that gets confusing.  This means I have fewer exposition tools for world-building and the dreaded info dump can look rather appealing.  I used this when I started and tried to use flourishing language, which is what made me wordy in my writing.  Unfortunately, I can still slide too far into the past by talking about the event in detail in a way that makes it sound like it’s happening now.  What can I do?

Dialogue to the rescue!

As long as I have a character who would know the information I wish to share and another who is curious, I can build the past into my world.  In Beginning of a Hero, it was Fritz Warrenberg who did this as well as Fizzle.  Throughout the rest of the series, I had nearly every character step into the role of tour guide/teacher.  It was all done through dialogue and having someone ask a question that a reader would have either at the time or down the road.  Think of it as a preemptive Q&A.  If I couldn’t have the characters converse then I wouldn’t be able to explain a lot of stuff.  Another benefit here is that many of them were not that verbose, so the explanations went right to the point.  It’s a much better route to take than the info dump, which can result in a lot of extraneous details that will turn a reader off.

Outside of the world-building, I find dialogue is where you can show more of the characters.  They demonstrate how they feel by using various tags or adding body language to the conversation.  You can keep the second part even if you get rid of dialogue, but it can miss the mark at times.  I have seen people state that tags need to go because they’re too restrictive.  While I can see that argument, I wouldn’t try it and think there is enough variety and nuance to keep them alive.  Sure, ‘he said, she said, repeat’ is dull, but you still have claims, says, exclaims, yells, mentions, explains, shouts, moans, groans, mutters, whispers, etc.  I see that as being more helpful in demonstrating a character’s emotions and development.

So, what does everyone else think about dialogue?  Anybody agree that it needs to be retired?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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51 Responses to Using Dialogue in Fiction: This Is a Debate?

  1. Sue Vincent says:

    I honestly don’t think I would want to read a fictional work with no dialogue. I like to get to know the characters and you would lose such a lot of that without them speaking to each other.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I wouldn’t read a book without dialogue either. Boring!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. L. Marie says:

    There’s actually a debate about dialogue? Wow. I have never finished a novel lacking in dialogue. I say “finished,” because I started reading a stream of consciousness book but didn’t finish it. Dialogue is such a good tool, as you mentioned. It helps us learn about the characters and the plot points.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dialog is my mainstay. Get rid of it? I think dialog is one good way of showing not telling. Although I do think tags slow down the action there is a certain amount of emotion that. a tag can interject. I have been concentrating on adding certain character descriptions to get the emotion across (he put his hand to his mouth rather than “he said with concern.”) The whole sentence would look like this. James quickly put his hand to his mouth. “What are you saying?” So, in short, I think dialog needs to stay.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Let Charles know what YOU think about dialogue, in the comments under his original blog post 😎

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a reader and a writer, dialogue in fiction is essential.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. V.M.Sang says:

    Dialogue tags are another thing, Charles. We are told to only use ‘said’ because it’s invisible to readers. But then we’re told not to repeat words as that’s boring. Well, in my opinion, only using ‘said’ is just as boring. It lacks emotion, and again, we’re told to add emotion.
    I am part of an online critique group and I am often told to ‘show’ something by using dialogue.
    I think some of these ideas are more for experimental literary fiction rather than the stuff normal people read. Like people writing a whole novel with no punctuation! What’s that all about? I believe someone did it, but I can’t see it being easy to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • (Weird that this went to spam. Sorry about that.) I agree with ‘said’ because it really isn’t as invisible as people think. Try reading it out loud and it sounds like a children’s book because of the repetition and simplicity. You’re the second to mention no punctuation, which sounds ridiculous to me. Watched some videos with subtitles that did that and it was confusing even with me hearing the words.

      My personal opinion on ‘show don’t tell’ is that it comes down to perspective and preference. I think most people throw the phrase out because they hear it all the time, but they don’t use it correctly. Now, the whole thing is muddled and many times gets used by someone who wants to sound smart and professional. It’s oddly pompous in a way most times that I hear it said.

      Like

  8. missimontana says:

    I don’t believe this is a good idea. People speak in real life. Unless your MC is in a monastery taking a vow of silence, I cannot imagine a story where no one ever speaks. Even someone in solitary confinement or stuck on a deserted island will eventually talk to himself. I heard of someone who said we should use nothing but nouns and verbs; all else was clutter. Some say we should get rid of most punctuation. And now dialogue? I imagine a future where we will have a cover with blank pages inside because language will be seen as clutter (and we will be scolded for being dumb and old fashioned for not getting it.) These fads won’t last, nor make much money in the long run. Language developed the way it did for centuries for a good reason. Dialogue makes a story sound real. These fads are the abstract art of writing. Most people are going to say “I don’t get it” and buy another book.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I’ve seen the punctuation thing before and kept walking. I think the nouns and verbs only idea stems from a famous author criticizing the use of adjectives and adverbs. I thrive with those, so I’m not a fan. Do any of these fads work?

      Great point on how language developed for a reason. Something has caused a push to minimize it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yecheilyah says:

    Retire dialogue? What in all the world? Lol. I love dialogue. I agree it’s where you can show more of the characters. Dialogue really brings out their personality so the reader feels like they are real people. I’m not sure it would be fiction without it 🤷🏾‍♀️.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Getting rid of dialog is absurd. I can’t imagine doing this even on a dare. Dialog helps readers relate to our characters. I’ve even written in first person where only that character’s POV is presented. She still communicated with friends, family, and enemies. People come up with some weird ideas.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Joan Hall says:

    The subject of this post caught my eye. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get rid of dialogue. I for one would not read a book without it.
    I write in third person, past tense. Dialogue not only helps readers get to know the characters, it also moves a story forward.

    Anyone who says its archaic, well, they need to take writing lessons or something.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. petespringerauthor says:

    This topic doesn’t seem debatable. A story without dialogue is like a cake without frosting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I now wonder what my books would be without dialogue. Probably just a cover and end jacket.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post on dialogue from Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. For me, dialogue is where the characters’ personalities are revealed. In my detective novels, it also gives me a chance to show the friendship and verbal sparring between my main character and his sidekick. It’s fun to write and I hope it’s fun to read.

    Like

  16. This is plain bizarre. I have to agree with what the others are saying: dialogue is essential to storytelling! How would characters communicate without dialogue? I don’t know; a story without dialogue would be strange and nothing I would be interested in reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it stems from people wanting to imitate movies that use no dialogue. Those are praised as artistic and amazing if done right. Books wouldn’t be as fortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I could see it being used to prove a point, but I think it would have to be done by an extremely talented writer for it to be successful. I don’t think it’s a trend that will take—hopefully!

        Like

  17. Dialogue has a thousand uses. It breaks up long passages of description. It conveys information. It expresses character. For me, I think the most important is how dialogue always gives more than just the words. It makes the reader consider which characters are speaking, and it suggests things those characters might want. When there is conflict, dialogue shows us if the characters are going to be honest or underhanded in achieving their goals. Dialogue can tell us who has social status over the others. As humans, our brains are set up to take in these details and analyze both the context and the content.

    Not using dialogue at all would seem really difficult and tedious.

    Liked by 1 person

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