Indirect Dialogue

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I’ve been playing around with indirect dialogue lately, and I think I’m in love. To be honest, I hardly ever used this in the past, but now that I am using it, I notice a few things:

  • My stories are smoother
  • I can spend time showing where it counts
  • I don’t feel like I’m writing a play

Using indirect dialogue is like coming up from being under water and taking a breath. But before I get into discussing how it helped me achieve these three differences, there’s one thing you absolutely have to know:

What is indirect dialogue?

If you already know the answer, great! You’ll want to read this anyway because I’m going to refer to the examples later. If you don’t, no worries–I’ll get you up to speed.

I’m sure you’re used to seeing direct dialogue in a book or story. Direct dialogue might read like this:

“Mom, I want to go see a movie with my friends,” she said.

“What time does it get out?” Mom asked.

“Eleven-thirty.”

“That’s past your curfew.”

“Please? All my friends are going and I just aced that math test.”

“Oh, alright.”

Direct dialogue happens on the page like your reader is in the room (or whatever setting you’ve selected).

Indirect dialogue is reported after the fact, with just enough information to inform the reader of what they need to know, like this:

Mom agreed I could stay out later than curfew to see the movie with my friends because I aced my math test.

Do you see the difference? Great! Let’s move on to how incorporating indirect dialogue helped me improve my fiction.

Smoother Stories

In the example above, the direct dialogue takes up six lines. The indirect dialogue only takes up two lines. This helps my fiction move at the pace I want instead of being forced to plod along in dialogue that only serves one purpose.

That’s the key to writing dialogue–writing it directly requires that it perform multiple functions. Not only does it need to inform (and hopefully engage) the reader, but it should reveal something about the characters: personalities, motivations, fears, etc.

Indirect dialogue doesn’t have to do all of that. It just has to inform the reader. If you have a bit of dialogue that exists only to offer the reader info they need, consider making it indirect.

Also, the story flows better visually. Large swaths of dialogue were just weighing my work down. Now I try to combine indirect and direct dialogue so that I can get in and out of quotes quickly, and back to the story.

Space to Show–Where I Need It

I’ve written about showing vs. telling before. Showing takes up more space than telling, and it slows the pace of a story.

Sometimes, that’s what you want–to slow things down. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you want to slow the story, but not with dialogue.

Using indirect dialogue instead of always relying on direct dialogue means you have the space to show where it counts. Remember: Showing doesn’t need to happen throughout the story. It needs to happen where it’s important.

My Novel Is Not a Play

Plays are wonderful. I love watching them performed on stage, I love reading them, I love acting them out on the loft in my house when no one’s around. But my novel is not a play.

I don’t want it to feel like a play when I’m writing it. If I’m including play written scenes like Kathryn Davis does in her eloquent and wonderful book, Versailles, then that’s one thing–but if I’m not, it shouldn’t write like a play and it shouldn’t read like a play.

There’s more to a play than dialogue of course, and I completely admire playwrights. I think it must be difficult to convey everything that’s going on in dialogue and stage direction and no freedom to break into exposition.

Discuss

What’s your favorite passage that includes indirect dialogue? If you write, do you like to use it? Why? If you don’t like to use it, how come? Discuss in comments!

Weekly Writing Prompt: Dialogue

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This week’s prompt focuses on dialogue. Write a 500-word scene that uses only dialogue. No tags. No actions. If it’s not said between quotes, don’t write it.

Feel free to share a link to your story in the comments below!