Rumor has it: Indirect vs. direct dialogue

Recently, I played a few rounds of Telestrations with family. If you've never played this game, it works like this: Each player draws a card. The card has words and phrases on it, like "fly a kite." A roll of a die determines which word you use on the card. You write that word, then try your best to draw it. You pass the drawing onto the next person, and they have to guess what it is. The person after them has to try to draw the word from Person#2's guess...and so on.

In fiction, dialogue is, if you think about it, a bit like playing telephone. This is emphasized when a scene is written in the past tense. In prose, all dialogue is reported. That is, it's like the narrator sitting down next to you (or six feet away from you with a mask) and saying, "So they told me..." and relaying a conversation to you. Because of this, writers have the freedom to use something known as indirect dialogue to avoid weighing down their prose with dialogue that doesn't reveal character or subtext.

What is indirect dialogue?

The best way to teach you what indirect dialogue is would be to share an example. I'll use my current work in progress (don't worry, no spoilers).

First, let's look at what direct dialogue is. This is when you write what a character says in quotation marks. For example:

"When I feel well enough," I say, "I will take my litter."

In this line, When I feel well enough and I will take my litter are direct dialogue. Those are the exact words my character speaks, in the exact order they're spoken. I chose to use direct dialogue because my narrator speaks formally, and the fact that she travels by litter suggests her socio-economic status.

In contrast, an example from earlier in the same scene of indirect dialogue is:

I tell ___ I must see the physician.

(I've redacted the name. No spoilers, remember?)

There are no quotation marks. Maybe the character used the words I must see the physician, or maybe not. The word choice would not shed any light on who this character is, so I elected to use indirect dialogue.

Indirect dialogue acknowledges the reporting that happens in prose of what characters say, and the nature that it is reported. It also saves the text from reading like a screenplay (nothing wrong with screenplays).

Confession time...

I am guilty of using too much direct dialogue sometimes. Usually, early in my drafting process, I don't use a lot of indirect dialogue. I think this is because I feel like I'm just recording the scene that unfurls before my mind's eye.

But part of the editing and revision process involves interrogating every piece of dialogue and asking myself if it needs to be direct, or if it can be indirect. Indirect dialogue, I think, flows better. It allows the reader more space to imagine. The reader takes meaning from the indirect dialogue without the author attempting to proscribe how it was said.

This isn't a treatise against direct dialogue. Sometimes it's important. And if you're drafting? Let yourself let loose with the quotation marks. But in revision, don't forget to ask yourself if the direct dialogue is doing double duty like it should (by showing characterization, subtext, etc...) or if it's simply that you've fallen into a pattern of relying on direct dialogue and dialogue tags to build your scenes for you.

And don't fret if you share your work with others and they tell you there's still waaaaaay too much direct dialogue. Even if you've already weeded out a lot. It just means you have to go back and question each line of direct dialogue again.

Still got questions about indirect dialogue? Or direct dialogue? Get in touch!

© 2020 by Margaret McNellis