This article is fairly explorative and contains example passages from Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. Enjoy.
Across blog posts, forums, and subreddits, there seems to be an almost universal rule in the online writing community. That notion that dialogue should be kept short, or even avoided.
It isn’t as common as advice like “show don’t tell” or “don’t use the passive voice.” All three rules of thumb are fairly effective, but they can have important exceptions. “Telling,” for example, is very useful for summarization and transitions. When it comes to brevity of dialogue, the exceptions can be even greater.
I’ll begin by stating that I agree, for the most part, with the advice that “often, less dialogue is more.” Dialogue can be a something of a trap for a writer, and I think the reason is that dialogue is interesting. A writer (such as myself, on occasion) could, maybe subconsciously, assume that if dialogue is so interesting, anything spoken by a character must also be interesting. But, the problem is that like any prose or poetry, dialogue can be tedious and pointless.
The idea of limiting dialogue is one that even writers such as Ernest Hemingway agree with. He states, “Good dialogue is not real speech—it’s the illusion of real speech.” Further, the Iceberg Theory that emerged from his writing style is highly reflective of this mode of thought.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (Earnest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 171).
As useful and interesting as the rule might be, I simply cannot see it as absolute. What if you need a scene with long dialogue? Do you therefore also need a giant iceberg beneath it? Should you cut it down, or turn some of the speech into description? Would that not be editing out “showing” and replacing it with “telling?” I wonder about these kinds of things.
When I read Jane Austin’s novel, Pride and Prejudice the mental playing field shifted. It seemed to me that Austin does a terrific job of contradicting a lot of the “write minimal dialogue” advice I’ve contended with. Below is a very good example of effective, but also long dialogue with little prose interrupting it.
“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
[Mr. Darcy] made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you–but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent.
“Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp; and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley’s.”
“Will you give me leave to defer your raptures till I write again? At present I have not room to do them justice.”
“Oh! it is of no consequence. I shall see her in January. But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?”
“They are generally long; but whether always charming it is not for me to determine.”
“It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”
“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother, “because he does NOT write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?”
“My style of writing is very different from yours.”
“Oh!” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”
“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them–by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”
“Your humility, Mr. Bingley,” said Elizabeth, “must disarm reproof.”
“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
“And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?”
“The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. When you told Mrs. Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved upon quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself–and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real advantage to yourself or anyone else?”
“Nay,” cried Bingley, “this is too much, to remember at night all the foolish things that were said in the morning. And yet, upon my honour, I believe what I said of myself to be true, and I believe it at this moment. At least, therefore, I did not assume the character of needless precipitance merely to show off before the ladies.”
“I dare say you believed it; but I am by no means convinced that you would be gone with such celerity. Your conduct would be quite as dependent on chance as that of any man I know; and if, as you were mounting your horse, a friend were to say, ’Bingley, you had better stay till next week,’ you would probably do it, you would probably not go–and at another word, might stay a month.”
“You have only proved by this,” cried Elizabeth, “that Mr. Bingley did not do justice to his own disposition. You have shown him off now much more than he did himself.”
“I am exceedingly gratified,” said Bingley, “by your converting what my friend says into a compliment on the sweetness of my temper. But I am afraid you are giving it a turn which that gentleman did by no means intend; for he would certainly think better of me, if under such a circumstance I were to give a flat denial, and ride off as fast as I could.”
(From Pride and Prejudice, chapter 10; By Jane Austen, 1811)
The section quoted above contains short and banter, but is also a quite perfect depiction of Darcy’s introversion. Then, very shortly after this passage, the dialogue goes on for a couple more pages, with characters throwing entire paragraphs of dialogue at each other.
It’s an example of long dialogue from a classic—a classic in the literary canon nonetheless. And it isn’t just her. Anyone familiar with Leo Tolstoy would know that he’s no stranger to long dialogue himself. I think the way that he gets away with it is by only writing out explicit speech when the characters are saying something important, or in a specific manner. At other times, it seems, he leaves communications in prose.
This first quarrel arose from Levin’s having gone out to a new farmhouse and having been away half an hour too long, because he had tried to get home by a short cut and had lost his way. He drove home thinking of nothing but her, of her love, of his own happiness, and the nearer he drew to home, the warmer was his tenderness for her. He ran into the room with the same feeling, with an even stronger feeling than he had had when he reached the Shtcherbatskys’ house to make his offer. And suddenly he was met by a lowering expression he had never seen in her. He would have kissed her; she pushed him away.
“What is it?”
“You’ve been enjoying yourself,” she began, trying to be calm and spiteful. But as soon as she opened her mouth, a stream of reproach, of senseless jealousy, of all that had been torturing her during that half hour which she had spent sitting motionless at the window, burst from her. It was only then, for the first time, that he clearly understood what he had not understood when he led her out of the church after the wedding. He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. He felt this from the agonizing sensation of division that he experienced at that instant.
(From Anna Karenina, Part 5 Chapter 17; By Leo Tolstoy, 1877)
Here, most of Seryozha’s lesson explanation and not dialogue. It could easily have been dialogue, but instead Tolstoy focused on the actions and emotions, rather than the words that were said.
Despite this example and its effectiveness, I should point out that, in both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, there are often large strings of dialogue, sometimes entire chapters devoted to conversation. Tolstoy doesn’t write communication all the time, but I thought this style was very interesting.
From my experience with these two writers I’ve gathered a few things: Like any other part of a story, dialogue must either advance/address the plot, or reveal character. By my recollection, all the dialogue in Pride and Prejudice follows the two rules, and by reverse, a lot of the impressions and opinions the characters express in that novel could only be properly conveyed through dialogue. Leo Tolstoy shows (occasionally) that sometimes explaining what a character is trying to communicate through prose can be more effective than dialogue.
Impressions, opinions, and… emotions. I think that a solid overarching reason for why the dialogue in Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice is so effective is because it offers a direct emotional conduit between the character and the reader. The long passages of dialogue in either work will often cover an emotional arc. One of the speaking characters will often be feeling strong emotions that shift and change as they talk. It keeps their words engaging, and it allows the reader to tune in and empathize with the speaker directly.
This sort of effect isn’t always possible through non-dialogue prose because that comes from (or through) the writer, whereas dialogue feels more like direct quotation from a character. That isn’t to say that a reader shouldn’t connect to a writer, or a writer’s ideas. It just means that dialogue could be a better medium than prose if a writer wants their reader to connect with a character.
But then again… there’s always “revealing character through action.” Aren’t actions supposed to be louder than words? Well now I’ve sort of come full circle.
I think it’s clear that there are few universal rules in writing, and that “keep dialogue short” probably isn’t one of them. It’s a good rule of thumb, but if you can strongly justify your dialogue’s place in the story, then you might have an exception on your hands.
This article is a republish. It was originally written June 14, 2018.
P.S: For readers of The Solune Prince (or any of my other fiction)
I’m still coming up with a schedule for the release of The Solune Prince.
If I can get rigid writing schedule down, then I might be able to manage once a week, but it would likely be at the expense of other kind of post, or at least any other kind of quality post.
Once every two weeks seems decent, but that might be too long between chapters. What might end up happening is a “minimum of one chapter every two weeks.” Or I might tighten the blog down to just chapters of The Solune Prince for the summer, and then loosen up around when university re-opens.
(also check out https://danieltriumph.com/the-solune-prince/ for the first chapter.)
P. P. S.: This is the original Anna Karenina quote I had. I switched it for the marriage one, since it was a better (and perhaps more interesting) example.
“You understand that, I hope?” said his father.
“Yes, papa,” answered Seryozha, acting the part of the imaginary boy.
The lesson consisted of learning by heart several verses out of the Gospel and the repetition of the beginning of the Old Testament. The verses from the Gospel Seryozha knew fairly well, but at the moment when he was saying them he became so absorbed in watching the sharply protruding, bony knobbiness of his father’s forehead, that he lost the thread, and he transposed the end of one verse and the beginning of another. So it was evident to Alexey Alexandrovitch that he did not understand what he was saying, and that irritated him.
He frowned, and began explaining what Seryozha had heard many times before and never could remember, because he understood it too well, just as that “suddenly” is an adverb of manner of action. Seryozha looked with scared eyes at his father, and could think of nothing but whether his father would make him repeat what he had said, as he sometimes did. And this thought so alarmed Seryozha that he now understood nothing. But his father did not make him repeat it, and passed on to the lesson out of the Old Testament. Seryozha recounted the events themselves well enough, but when he had to answer questions as to what certain events prefigured, he knew nothing, though he had already been punished over this lesson.
(From Anna Karenina, Part 5 Chapter 27; By Leo Tolstoy, 1877)