Dialogue Direct And Indirect Inspired And Uninspired

"Hi,"Joe said to Mary.

Mary looked up from the book she was reading. "Hi," she said.

Joe shuffled his feet nervously. He was sure everyone in the school cafeteria was looking at him. "What ya doin'?" he asked.


"Oh. Reading what?"


"Is it any good?"

"Just a fishing story."

Joe sat down. He ran his finger around his collar to wipe away the sweat trickling down his neck.

"Ah, I've got to ask you something," he said.

"I'm listening."

"Er, have you got a date for the prom?"

"I wasn't going to go to the prom."

"Gee, everyone goes to the prom. How'd you like to go with me?"

"Hmmm. I'll think about it, okay?"

"Don't think about it, do it! I'll get my old man's car. I'll have plenty of money."

"It sounds sort of all right."

"We can have dinner at Benny's Pizza Palace. "

"Well, okay then."

The above scene is in the dramatic form. It has a central conflict because there is an opposition of wills (he wants to take her to the prom; she's reluctant to go), it rises to a climax, and the characters are orchestrated. Still, it stinks. Why?

First, the dialogue is completely uninspired. It is direct dialogue. Direct dialogue expresses exactly what is on the character's mind with no attempt on the part of the character to demur, use subterfuge, lie, be witty, and so on. Fine dialogue expresses the will of the character indirectly. Let's see how the same scene would read if it were written in indirect dialogue.

"I have to sit down here, it's my job," Joe said.

"Oh?" said Mary, looking up from the book she was reading.

"Yeah, the school pays me a buck fifty an hour to study in the cafeteria and serve as a good example."

"Sit anywhere you like, it's a free country."

Joe smiled at her and said, "I know your future."

"How would you know my future?"

"I read Tarot cards."

"I don't believe in Tarot cards, my family is Unitarian."

Joe took the cards out of his pocket and shuffled them. He put the first one down. He said, "You're going to be picked up at eight P.M. in a green Chevy Nova."

"The devastatingly handsome young man who's driving will be wearing a white dinner jacket with a plaid cumberbund."

"He will?"

"He will take you to the prom at this very school's gymnasium."

"Gee, the cards say all that, do they?"

"That and more." He put away the cards. "I don't want to ruin all the surprises."

"Am I being asked for a date?"

"Will you go with me?"

"The cards tell all, right? Then you ought to know."

Because Joe is using indirect dialogue, he comes across as more unique and interesting. A character at his maximum capacity will use clever, fresh, indirect dialogue. If you ever watch televison sitcoms you will hear mostly direct dialogue. It's one of the reasons they leave you feeling bored.

If you work on dialogue, your characters will display more wit, charm, erudition, loquaciousness, cleverness, and panache than you, the author. How is that possible? Because of the time factor.

What your characters say and do in a story seems spontaneous. They seem like real people saying and doing clever things. Joe just whipped out those Tarot cards and went into his patter. But the author of this book may have stayed up for two nights asking himself what Joe could do to impress Mary.

Have you ever been to a party where some clown is expounding, say, on the natural inferiority of women and you strongly disagree, but all you can think of to say is "You're full of it?" On the way home, you say to yourself that you should have quoted Simone de Beauvoir on the phenomenological vicissitudes of the existential cultural determinate theory of sexual differences in class and culture. That would have shut up that blowhard.

If your character had been in that situation, you could have thought it over for a while and come up with just the right thing to say. It might take you a week, but it would seem to the reader as if the character just came out with it spontaneously.


Dramatic novels are written in three modes: dramatic narrative, scenes, and half-scenes.

In dramatic narrative, the narrator relates actions, shows character growth, and exploits inner conflict, but does so in a summary fashion. Madame Bovary is written almost entirely in dramatic narrative:

Charles did not know what to answer; he respected his mother and idolized his wife; he considered his mother's judgment infallible, and yet everything about Emma was irreproachable to him. After the elder Madame Bovary had gone, he would timidly try to repeat, using her own words, one or two of the mildest criticisms he had heard her express; Emma would quickly prove to him that he was wrong and send him back to his patients.

Meanwhile, following theories in which she believed, she made determined efforts to experience love. In the garden, by moonlight, she would recite to him all the passionate verses she knew by heart and sing him mournful adagios accompanied by sighs; but afterward she found herself as calm as before, and Charles did not seem to be any more amorous or stirred up.

Unable to produce the slightest spark of love in her heart by such means, and as incapable of understanding what she did not feel as she was of believing in anything that did not manifest itself in conventional forms, she easily convinced herself that there was no longer anything extraordinary about Charles's love for her. His raptures had settled into a regular schedule; he embraced her only at certain hours. It was one habit among many, like a dessert known in advance, after a monotonous dinner . . .

In a scene, of course, the narrator describes actions as they happened. Here's an example, again from Madame Bovary:

At dinner that night her husband found that she was looking well, but when he asked about her ride she did not seem to hear him; she sat leaning her elbow on the table beside her plate, between two lighted candles.


"Well, I went to see Monsieur Alexandre this afternoon; he has a mare several years old, but still in fine shape, except that she's a little knee-sprung. I'm sure he'd sell her for three hundred francs or so . . . I thought you'd like to have her so I reserved her ... I bought her . . . did I do right? Tell me."

She nodded. Then, a quarter of an hour later, she asked, "Are you going out tonight?"

As soon as she was rid of Charles she went upstairs and shut herself in her room.

At first she felt dazed; she saw the trees, the paths, the ditches and Rudolphe; and again she felt his arms tighten around her while the leaves quivered and the reeds rustled.

But when she saw herself in the mirror she was amazed by the way her face looked. Never before had her eyes been so big, so dark, so deep. She was transfigured by something subtle spread over her whole body.

She repeated to herself, "I have a lover! I have a lover!" and the thought of it gave her a delicious thrill . . .

A half-scene is a dramatic narrative interrupted, blended with parts of scene:

Toward the end of September, Charles spent three days at Les Bertaux. The last day went past like the others, with the big moment being put off from one to the next. [Dramatic narrative to this point; now scene begins.] Monsieur Rouault was accompanying him a short distance before seeing him off; they were walking along a sunken road; they were about to part. The time had come. Charles told himself he must make his declaration before they came to the corner of the hedge; finally, when they had passed it, he murmured, "Monsieur Rouault, there's something I'd like to say to you."

"Go on, tell me what's on your mind—as if I didn't know already!" said Monsieur Rouault, laughing gently.

"Monsieur Rouault—Monsieur Rouault—" stammered Charles.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'd like nothing better," continued the farmer. "I'm sure my daughter agrees with me, but I'll have to ask her just the same. I'll leave you here and go back to the house. Listen to me now: if she says yes, you'd better not come in, because of all the people around; and besides, it would upset her too much. But I don't want to keep you in suspense, so I'll open one of the shutters all the way against the wall; you'll be able to see it if you look back over the hedge."

And he walked away.

Charles tied his horse to a tree, ran back to the path and waited. Half an hour went by, then he counted nineteen minutes by his watch. Suddenly he heard a sound from the house: the shutter had slammed against the wall; the catch was still quivering. [End of scene; return to dramatic narrative.]

He returned to the farm at nine the next morning. Emma blushed when he came in, but she forced herself to laugh a little in order not to seem flustered. Monsieur Rouault embraced his future son-in-law. They postponed all discussion of financial arrangements: there was still plenty of time, since the wedding could not decently take place until the end of Charles's mourning, the spring of the following year.

The winter was spent in waiting . . .


Dramatic writing requires rising conflict. This is true not only for the dramatic story as a whole, but for the dramatic scene as well, whether it is handled in summary fashion in a dramatic narrative, or exploited more fully in a half-scene or a full scene.

A scene, because it has a rising conflict, must come to some sort of climax and resolution, even if the conflict is carried over into ensuing scenes. The core conflict within a scene does not have to be the same as the core conflict within the novel. The core conflict in a novel may be between a man and his wife; the opening scene may involve, say, a conflict between the man and his boss leading to his getting fired, an event that will in turn affect the core conflict.

A scene has the same shape as a story. It begins at a low point of tension and rises to a point of climax, followed by a resolution. Here's an example from A Christmas Carol.

This lunatic, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. [This is a bridge from the previous scene. The new scene now begins.] They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood with their hats off, in Scrooge's office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

"Scrooge and Marley's, I believe," said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Mar-ley?"

"Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years, " Scrooge replied. "He died seven years ago, this very night." [So far this scene has very little conflict. Scrooge has yet to find out the gentlemen are there to ask for money.]

"We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner," said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word "liberality," Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back. [The tension is rising.]

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who may suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge. [Now he's getting nasty; they want his money.]

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not. "

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. [Point of climax, followed by the resolution, including Scrooge's emotional growth.] Scrooge resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened. . . . [Bridge to the next scene.]

The above is an example of a full scene. It begins when the gentlemen arrive; the conflict rises to a point of climax; and it ends with a resolution and a bridge to the next scene. Many times it is not advisable to use a full scene, because at the beginning of the scene the conflicts are not strong enough to engage the reader. Say your character is about to ask the boss for a raise. He makes up his mind to go in and see the boss first thing the next morning. The end of the scene where he makes up his mind can be bridged directly to the middle of the following scene:

"You've got to get that raise, Joe, we need the money for the baby! If you won't go in there and ask, I'm leaving you!"

"Okay, okay, I'll ask, I'll ask, first thing tomorrow! "

He didn't sleep well that night and the follow ing morning [bridge to next scene], standing in front of the boss [plunging right into the scene], Joe felt his knees shaking while he stammered his demand: "I get a raise, or I quit!"

The boss looked up at him and a wolfish grin appeared on his face. "We're going to miss you around here, Cogsgrove." [Climax of the scene.]

That very afternoon Joe bought the rope he intended to use to hang himself. . . . [Resolution and bridge to the next scene.]

Plunging into the middle of scenes speeds your novel along and keeps the reader involved in the rising conflict. For varying effect, a scene's climax might even be skipped. There are also times when a whole scene might be omitted, either because it would not have intense enough conflict, or for comic effect:

Joe made up his mind that morning there was only one thing to do. All he had to do was borrow his dad's old shotgun and go down to the local liquor store, and that night he would have enough to get to Hollywood, where he was sure to be able to break into television. He waited until dark before making his move, wearing his ski mask, gloves, and running shoes. He parked his car around the corner and walked into Fred's Liquors at 9:00 exactly. At 9:28 exactly he was booked into the city jail [skipping the actual holdup for comic purposes].

When critics say a work is fast-paced, it is often because the writer keeps his characters engaged in intense conflicts and cuts directly into scenes with rising conflict. When you write your novel, consider each scene and ask yourself whether part of the scene might be trimmed to speed up the pace.


The following is a familiar situation, that of the police arriving on the scene of a murder and talking to the deputy coroner:

Lt. Fisk pulled up in front of the house on Vermont Street and got out of his car. He walked up the steps and rang the bell. The maid opened the door after a moment and led the lieutenant to the solarium in the rear where the coroner's man was waiting. The coroner's man introduced himself as Herman Trippet and the two men shook hands.

"Where's the body?" Lt. Fisk asked.

"Right over here," Trippet said. Trippet was a tall man with a small mustache.

The maid excused herself.

Trippet showed the lieutenant the crawl space behind the couch where the body lay, covered with a white sheet.

"It's not pretty."

Trippet pulled the sheet back, revealing the body of a woman in her early thirties. Her throat had been cut.

"How long has she been dead?" Fisk asked.

"Two, maybe three hours."

"Any sign of struggle?"

"Okay, when can you give me a full report?" "It'll be on your desk by eight in the morning. " Fisk said: "Have you found the weapon?"

"Are the lab guys on the way?" "Supposed to be here an hour ago." "Leave the stiff till they come. I'll talk to the maid."

"Right, Lieutenant."

In this poorly realized scene there is no conflict, nothing fresh; the characters are stereotypes. It's a scene you might see on a television cop show. In addition, the writing has no color, no pizzazz. First, let's see what putting some conflict into the scene might do. We'll pick it up as the lieutenant enters the solarium:

"My name's Fisk," the lieutenant said, not bothering to put out his hand to the younger man.

"Trippet," Trippet said. "You new?" Fisk asked. "I been around a while." "How come I ain't never seen you before?" "Been working out in the valley." "Still, I should have heard of you if you was any good." "I'm good."

The lieutenant turned to the maid. "I'll send for you if I need you, Toots."

The maid nodded and backed out of the room. "Where's the stiff, Trippet?"

"Behind the couch."

The lieutenant looked behind the couch.

"You find her like this with a sheet over her?"

"I brought the sheet."

"I don't like nothing changed; get rid of the sheet."

Trippet removed the sheet and the lieutenant looked at the wound in the corpse's neck.

"Give me the time, Trippet."

"I'd say it happened anywheres between two and three hours ago, Lieutenant."

The lieutenant lit a cigar. "I thought you said you was good."

"By tomorrow morning I'll be able to tell you what she had for breakfast and when she had her last bowel movement."

"Okay, Trippet, I'll look forward to that. I like to look forward to things. Where the hell are the lab guys?"

"They've been sent for, that's all I know."

"Get on the horn, tell them I give them five minutes to get over here or fannies will be kicked and heads will be cracked."


This is better because the characters have been put in conflict, but the dialogue is still too direct. Here's a rewrite, picking it up at the point, again, where the lieutenant meets the coroner's man.

"Fisk," Fisk said.

"Trippet," replied the other.

[A direct exchange.]

The lieutenant turned to the maid. "Ain't you got some furniture that needs dusting?" [Indirect—translation: Get lost.] The maid scurried out of the room. The lieutenant turned to Trippet. "Where's Hennessy?"

[Indirect—translation: What are you doing here?]

"Hennessy got his gold watch last Friday." [He retired.]

"I guess they retired his experience with him." [You, Trippet, must be a greenhorn.] "I been working the valley the last six months. " [I got experience.] "I never heard of you." [How could you be any good?] Trippet reddened. "I never heard of you, either."

Fisk laughed. Then he said, "Where's the package?"

[Translation: body.]

"Behind door number three," Trippet said, sliding the couch out. "And under curtain number one," he added, removing the sheet. [Translation is obvious.] Lt. Fisk bent over the body. "Looks like a job done by Mr. or Ms. Fastidious. I prefer them like this. I can't stand a hack job. You figure out any of the big W's?"

[Indirect—meaning becomes clear in Trip-pet's answer.]

"Can't help with the who, the what, or the why, but I got a fix on the when."

"I can figure that myself. Two hours, thirty minutes ago—by the rigor mortis."

Trippet nodded in mute respect.

"Hennessy used to tell me things," the lieutenant said, "and I listened."

[I got experience.]

Moral of this story: good dialogue should be in conflict, indirect, clever, and colorful. Now, what do you do if yours isn't? Read on.

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