Friday 30 October 2009


Paradoxically, in the art of writing, it’s the power of the spoken word that can make or break your novel. Properly crafted dialogue can be used to:

• convey background information about your characters
• control the pace of the story
• reveal the emotions of your characters
• tell the reader what is relevant to the current situation
• break up the narrative of story so that your reader does not get bored and
• help create conflict

But if you think writing good dialogue is a simple matter of a couple of quotation marks and a speech tag, think again.

There are four types of dialogue.

Directed Dialogue: where one character drives the conversation in a certain direction and is directly answered by another character. The author uses this type of dialogue to set up tensions and issues that will surface later. The movement of the dialogue is directly from character A to character B.

Misdirected Dialogue: the movement of the dialogue is random. It sounds more like a real conversation in that characters don’t answer direct questions, or the subject matter may change, or other characters may chip in with unrelated comments. Here the author is using the natural rhythms and cadences of the spoken word to create tension.

Interpolated Dialogue: narrative exposition interrupts the dialogue for the purpose of interpreting what is implicit. Interpolated dialogue thus gives the reader subtle insight into the character’s deepest motivations behind the simplest dialogue. Here, the dialogue moves the story into a deeper revelation of one particular character.

Modulated Dialogue: this dialogue becomes the springboard for other details. These details can be introduced in a key memory, or to complicate the present situation, or as a means of exploring the tensions more overtly. The movement can be from dialogue to speculation or observation or flashback. The emphasis will not be interpretation (as in interpolated dialogue) but must focus on seamlessly merging scene, setting, tension and background.

Effective dialogue should have a purpose. All dialogue must either further the plot or reveal something about the story or characters. But beware that you do not force the dialogue to suit your authorial purpose. The best dialogue appears perfectly natural. And that's because every syllable, every word, will have been reworked into a finely tuned rhythm that brings the characters in your novel to life.

You will find examples of the different types of dialogue in the next post

For an excellent work book on dialogue, consider "Writing Dialogue" by Tom Chiarella, which provided the research material for this article.


Davin Malasarn said...

Wow, thanks for this nice post, Ann! I happen to be concentrating on dialog at the moment. It has always been something I've had trouble with. I've never seen it broken down like this before. And, thanks for the reference!

lotusgirl said...

Great breakdown of dialogues. The trickiest part is making them natural.

Judith Mercado said...

I think it's dialogue that makes the reader think he or she is really with another person(s), making it possible to suspend reality. The auditory stimulus promotes other sensory experience, just as hearing a few notes of a musical piece can trigger a memory of something long forgotten. It's why I always read my dialogue out loud to make sure it passes that test.

Lady Glamis said...

Dialogue is usually so essential to characters. This is a fantastic post! Do you think you could do a post with examples of each of these?

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Ann, great post on dialogue. Knowing and using the different types is so important to a work of fiction. Thanks for breaking it down so well. Cheers~

Ann Victor said...

DAVIN: In Tom Chiarelli’s book he says that writers tend not to consciously break down dialogue into types – that they even feel uncomfortable analysing what the do - but that writers instinctively use one of these four dialogue types. His premise is that if we as writers become consciously aware of the different types of dialogue, then we can improve the dialogue in our novels. And that’s why I read the book in the first place – my dialogue is a weak point. :(

LOTUSGIRL: Too true! I find it awfully difficult to make my dialogue seem natural.

JUDITH: You’re a good example! I’ve tried reading my dialogue aloud but it makes me cringe even more than when I read it, so I tend to avoid doing it. (I’m a bad girl, I know!)

LADY GLAMIS: Glad you find it useful. I’ll try and get some examples posted soon!

NANCY: I can’t take any credit for the breakdown of dialogue types, Nancy! I just summarised (to make sure that I grasped the essence of the book) Tom Chiarelli’s fabulous book “Writing Dialogue” (I’ve provided a link to it in the post).

Robyn Campbell said...

I have missed your posting Ann. I have been going to the hospital and trying to fix a small problem in my MG novel that I am going to query. I love the way you have shown the different types of dialogue. Can I link to this post? It is very good and I know a lot of writers that will want to read it. Bravo my friend. :)

And I have that book too. It has been sitting in my pile and I am going to pull it out to read it. :)

Ann Victor said...

ROBYN: So sorry to hear that you've been at the hospital again. Do hope all well with Christopher! Please do link to the blog! And pull the Chiarella book on dialogue out from your pile - it's well worth the read!