Dialogue is a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters. These two characters exchange words with one another and can, therefore, influence the writing in many different ways. Dialogue is often concerned with a particular subject. This subject is sometimes the main subject of the work and sometimes it is only tangential, or even completely unrelated. More often than not, in poetry, which is usually shorter than prose, the dialogue is centered around a central theme of the verse.
History of Dialogue
Dialogue as a technique in literature reaches back, as do many other literary techniques, to classical literature. The greatest philosophers of the time, such as Plato, used it in their works. It was employed in these instances less as a dramatic tool or way of furthering the plot but as a rhetorical device. These writers used the conversation to further arguments and ideas.
Purpose of Dialogue
There are endless reasons a reader could come up with for why dialogue is important in a piece of literature. It makes passages more interesting and engaging, while also providing the reader with vital details about the plot. In some cases it is necessary, depending on a writer’s chosen perspective, and in others, it is just an added bonus.
If a writer is able to construct believable dialogue a reader will connect with the characters and the story on a deeper level. They should be able to suspend their disbelief to a greater degree if the story and characters feel realistic, even if they aren’t.
Types of Dialogue
Inner dialogue is that which occurs within a character’s mind. They speak to themselves, consider their own thoughts and situations on a personal level. This is often how the reader comes to know the character more fully. The reader has access to things that the other characters in the story do not. Some works are made entirely of inner dialogue while others contain only a few examples.
This kind of dialogue is often associated with dramatic monologues in poetry and stream of consciousness novels in prose. For a wonderful example of how inner dialogue works, take a look at Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway.
Outer dialogue is the words that are exchanged between two people. It includes conversations that are meant to engage several people and those only directed at singular characters. These conversations can be just as honest as those held mentally, but often they are not. This can reveal another layer to a character’s personality. What someone hides and what they reveal can be telling.
Examples of Dialogue
Example #1 Bluebeard by Edna St. Vincent Millay
In this poem Millay takes the traditional myth of Bluebeard and his secret room and retells it, using the room as a powerful symbol. In the original story, Bluebeard’s latest wife is given the run of his castle, aside from one forbidden room. Once he’s gone, her curiosity gets the best of her and she looks inside. There, she finds a bloody mess and the remains of the previous wives. Bluebeard arrives home before the wife and her sister can flee the castle and figures out what happened. He’s going to kill them both but they stall for long enough that other members of their family arrive and save them.
In this original story, Bluebeard is a cruel, disturbed, and murderous husband who attempts to kill his current wife, adding to his total. But, Millay takes the poem in a different direction. After discovering the room, dining the key and looking inside, the current wife in this iteration finds nothing inside. The room is empty. She wrote this poem in the form of a dramatic monologue from Bluebeard’s perspective. Take a look at the last lines of the poem:
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.
He addresses the room, telling his wife that it was the only thing that he wanted for himself. Now, she has ruined that. The dialogue reveals a great deal about this speaker that without one would not understand. He tells the reader and his intended listener of his true nature and the reason the room as sealed off.
Example #2 The Wife’s Tale by Seamus Heaney
This poem is a fairly simple depiction of farmland and the tasks of a wife who is hardly more than an observer. It is written in freezers and includes internal and external dialogue. There are several instances in which the husband speaks to his wife, telling her what to do, where to go, and asserting his opinion about the harvest. Take a look at these lines from the last stanza
They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
Isn’t there?’ –as proud as if he were the land itself–
‘Enough for crushing and sowing both.’
And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,
So I belonged no further to the work.
The narration comes from the wife who observes the men working the field while the dialogue comes from her husband. She does not speak to him and a reader has to guess at what she might’ve said or what it means that she said nothing. Heaney did not include her own words in these lines, a fact that tells the reader a great deal about her personality and how she interacts with her husband.