Definition of Dialogue

Plato initially used the term “dialogue” to describe Socratic dialectic works. These works feature dialogues with Socrates, and they were intended to communicate philosophical ideas. As a current literary device, dialogue refers to spoken lines by characters in a story that serve many functions such as adding context to a narrative, establishing voice and tone, or setting forth conflict.

Writers utilize dialogue as a means to demonstrate communication between two characters. Most dialogue is spoken aloud in a narrative, though there are exceptions in terms of inner dialogue. Writers denote dialogue by the use of quotation marks (indicating spoken words) and dialogue tags (words such as “said” or “asked” indicating which character in the narrative is speaking). For example, Charles Dickens utilizes dialogue, quotation marks, and dialogue tags effectively in his work Great Expectations:

“Oh! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it,
“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”
“Pip, sir.”
“Once more,” said the man, staring at me. “Give it mouth!”

The reader is able to understand which words are spoken and by which characters. This passage demonstrates the way dialogue is used to convey the thoughts and actions of characters in addition to creating dramatic conflict that moves the plot along.

Examples of Why Writers Use Dialogue

Dialogue, when used effectively in a literary work, is an important literary device. Dialogue allows writers to pause in their third-person description of a story’s action, characters, setting, etc., which can often feel detached to the reader if prolonged. Instead, when characters are “speaking” in first-person in a narrative, the story can become more dynamic.

Here are some examples of why writers use dialogue in literary works:

  • reveal conflict in a story
  • move story forward
  • present different points of view
  • provide exposition, background, or contextual information
  • efficient means of conveying aspects and traits of characters
  • convey subtext (inner feelings and intentions of a character beyond their surface words of communication)
  • establish deeper meaning and understanding of a story for the reader
  • set character’s voice, point of view, and patterns of expression
  • allow characters to engage in conflict
  • create authenticity for reader

Famous Lines of Dialogue from Well-Known Movies

Well-known movies often feature memorable lines of dialogue that allow the audience to connect with characters and have a greater understanding of the plot as well as enjoyment of the film. Here are some famous lines of dialogue from well-known movies:

  • Casablanca: “But what about us?”
    “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • The Wizard of Oz: “Lions? And Tigers? And Bears?”
    “Oh my!”
  • Star Wars (A New Hope): “He’s almost in range.”
    “That’s no moon; it’s a space station.”
  • Love Story: “Jenny, I’m sorry.”
    “Don’t. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
  • No Country for Old Men:  “Look, I need to know what I stand to win.”
  • Forrest Gump: “I thought I’d try out my sea legs.”
    “But you ain’t got no legs, Lieutenant Dan.”
  • Toy Story: “Buzz, you’re flying!”
    “This isn’t flying; this is falling with style.”

Writing Effective Dialogue

Writers often find it difficult to utilize dialogue as a literary device. This is understandable considering that most of the daily dialogue exchanged between people in reality is often insignificant. In addition to being meaningful, it’s also difficult to write dialogue that “sounds” authentic to a reader. This poses a danger of taking a reader’s attention away from the story due to distracting dialogue.

However, writers shouldn’t avoid dialogue. This literary device, when written well, accomplishes many things for the narrative overall. Dialogue that sounds natural, authentic, and lifelike will advance the plot of a story, establish characters, and provide exposition. Therefore, writers should understand their purpose in using this literary device effectively as a means of creating a compelling story and entertaining experience for the reader.

Examples of Dialogue in Literature

As a literary device, dialogue can be utilized in almost any form of literature. This allows readers to better understand characters, plot, and even the theme of a literary work. Here are some examples of dialogue in well-known literature:

Example 1: Up-Hill (Christina Rossetti)

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

It can be rare in poetry to find dialogue as a literary device due to a poem’s typical nature of not featuring characters. However, in Rossetti’s literary work, the structure of the poem is in dialogue form. The poet asks questions of an unknown speaker and receives answers in return. This dialogue structure is effective in the poem in that the poet’s questions can be understood in a literal as well as symbolic manner. The poet is, on the literal surface, asking about the direction of the road, how long the journey will take, and what they may find once they reach the top of the hill. The unknown speaker replies with logical answers to these questions at a literal level.

However, Rossetti’s poem can also be interpreted as symbolic dialogue. The poet’s questions can be understood as those that humans would ask about the path of life and expectations in death and the afterlife. In this way, the dialogue, or conversation, is between the poet who represents human curiosity and an unknown speaker with the authority to reassure and confirm “answers” to these symbolic questions. Readers are left to wonder if the symbolic dialogue in the poem is between the poet and perhaps God.

Example 2: The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

I’m afraid I’m not that. That is why I want you to reform me. You might make that your mission, if you don’t mind, cousin Cecily.

I’m afraid I’ve no time, this afternoon.

Well, would you mind my reforming myself this afternoon?

It is rather Quixotic of you. But I think you should try.

I will. I feel better already.

You are looking a little worse.

That is because I am hungry.

How thoughtless of me. I should have remembered that when one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals. Won’t you come in?

Since plays are dramatic literary works to be performed, they often rely almost exclusively on dialogue between characters as a means of presenting the narrative. When plays are performed on stage, the audience can see and hear which character is speaking in addition to their physical attitude, vocal tone, inflection, etc. When reading a dramatic work such as Wilde’s famous play, the reader understands who is speaking as a result of the character’s name associated with specific lines of dialogue.

Wilde was known for using dialogue as a literary device to create witty conversations between his characters for the audience’s entertainment. However, Wilde’s word play and unexpected exchanges between characters often didn’t serve to create much dramatic action in terms of plot in his literary works. Instead, Wilde’s use of dialogue and patterns of expression convey the voice and traits of his characters in addition to setting forth some dramatic conflict in the narrative.

Example 3: Hills Like White Elephants (Ernest Hemingway)

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people
that have done it.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t
have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
” I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you
don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and
you’ll love me?”
I love you now. You know I love you.”

In this short story, Hemingway utilizes dialogue as a literary device to allow his characters to “talk” about a subject, though the actual subject itself is not directly named or expressed by either the man or the girl. This poses a challenge to readers in terms of determining what the couple is actually discussing. This is an effective strategy considering the couple is discussing whether the girl should terminate her pregnancy–a subject that would have been taboo to mention outright. Instead, Hemingway constructs dialogue such that the reader must interpret the difference between what the two characters are saying and what they truly mean.

Therefore, to understand the story, readers must pay close attention not to what is being said but who is speaking and the manner in which they speak. The dialogue becomes much more about the nature of the characters than the words they are speaking. This allows the reader to notice subtleties such as the plaintive tone of the girl, her ambiguous feelings, and her need for reassurance. In turn, the reader is able to notice the pressuring and insistent tone of the man. Hemingway’s use of dialogue, in a sense, offers a story in which the words “tell” less about the narrative than the attitudes of the characters do.

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