Direct and Indirect Dialogue

Direct and Indirect DialogueWhat’s the difference between direct and indirect dialogue? And why do we need both?

There’s one extended scene in my first book that contains a lot of indirect dialog and it always made me uncomfortable, like I’ve written it all wrong. My two MC’s trek across a wilderness for seventeen chapters before they arrive at a thriving frontier town and interact with the settlers. Everything so far has been direct dialogue. Suddenly, there’s a lot of reported conversations.

What’s the difference?

The highly non-academic definition according to John Matthew Fox at last year’s author summit:

  • Direct dialogue is in quotes (speech marks).
  • Indirect dialogue is in summary; no speech marks.

The plain fact is that Indirect Dialogue is mostly telling not showing. Doesn’t this break the ‘rule’ of ‘show don’t tell?’

One; that’s not a rule, it’s a guideline (see The Pirate Code).

Two; we don’t need to report every conversation word for word.

But… but… but…

A holy tenet of fiction is that dialog reveals character. We learn a lot from what people say. That’s undeniable. But we don’t need an in-depth knowledge of every single character who appears in the story.

Let’s ask which characters do we need to focus on? Think back to Twenty Characters to Start a Book. Many of those are minor characters fulfilling a role or providing some supporting function. Functional characters are both necessary and fine. Not every one of those is Hamlet.

Secondly, not every conversation is significant. Yes, seemingly trivial conversations can prove significant and illuminate character. Pinter and Beckett made whole careers of it. Some conversations, though, are just for information. I don’t need to relate the whole conversation with my neighbour Mrs Brown to tell you the post office is shut today.

Why Indirect Dialogue?

We can use Indirect Dialogue to:

  • Skip the boring small talk.
  • Skip the repetitive Q and A.
  • Cut the filler that adds nothing.

So that’s anything like a:

  • roll call of people, things and places; opening pleasantries about the weather; the mechanic’s detailed description of a carburetor explaining a simple car breakdown.
  • re-cap or summary of the plot so far by one character to another – when we as readers already know that. That is just ‘as you know…’ Maid-and-Butler dialogue.
  • chit-chat with minor, unnamed ‘extras’ or background characters; the chat with the security guard on the way into the office, or the chat with the janitor on the way out.

It’s up to the author to prioritise and spotlight the important dialog.

Now the security guard might drop a hint about unusual comings and goings, relevant to the plot; that becomes valuable direct speech. Maybe the janitor drops a hint about suspicious after-hours activity; that, too, is worth direct speech. But chit-chat about the traffic and the football scores? Summarise those as indirect.

Example: Seven Dull Soya Mochachino’s

Our MC finds seven people in line at the coffee counter; we don’t know them, they don’t have names, we’ll never see them again, and we don’t care what they’re ordering. All those complicated coffee orders can be summarized in indirect speech – maybe with some commentary on how pretentious and expensive they are. More important is the impact of the delay to our MC waiting in line. They get to the counter and start flirting with the barrista. Now it gets interesting; switch to direct speech.

Example: Will they? Won’t they? If not, Why Not?

Our MC and their best friend (a named, recurring, supporting character) wait in line at the same coffee counter. They discuss the barista. Should the MC flirt? If not why not? The friend tries to persuade the MC to ask the barista out on a date. Maybe the friend wants to ask the barista for a date. This is a conversation that reveals character and advances the plot. Run this conversation in direct speech from the get-go. The rest of the customers place their orders in indirect speech.

Example: Bait and Switch

Back to my uncomfortable use of Indirect Dialogue. My two MC’s need to go gather information in the frontier town and they canvas twenty or more of the settlers in a series of repetitive, meandering, inconclusive conversations. That’s maybe five or six pages of Nothing Very Useful to get to a handful of headlines. No one can argue against summarizing those using indirect speech.

There’s a confrontation with two caravan guards which almost ends in a fight. Switch to direct speech.

Afterward, it’s back to horse trading and a switch to indirect speech.

Then an old comrade emerges out of the crowd. Switch to direct speech again.

So why does it feel uncomfortable to me as a writer?

Breaking the Rules

Consider those Musical Montage sequences in CSI: Vegas where the folks in the crime lab do all the hard science stuff to collect the evidence and crack the case. We’re shown various forensic experiments conducted over hours or days with a rock soundtrack and no dialogue. They switch back to direct dialogue when they come together to tell each other the results. There’s a lot of thinly veiled (as in, poorly written) ‘as you know’ dialogue that advances the plot.

Anthony Zuiker and the writing team will show you the lab-work but then tell you what it means. It’s all part of the highly successful police-procedural formula. Three hundred thirty-seven episodes and counting.

Meanwhile, back at Longbourne

Jane Austen uses a lot of indirect dialog as she reports the goings on in the neighborhood of Pride and Prejudice. She summarizes a lot in letters between characters. Some of it is crucial to the plot, such as the Darcy Intervention, but it’s not direct dialogue. Why? Because Lizzie and Darcy are hundreds of miles apart and not on speaking terms; her uncle writes to tell her what happened in faraway London; Lizzie isn’t on location to interrogate any of the witnesses.

But we need to know what happened, even though we can’t get any of the direct dialog. We can only imagine what Darcy said to bribe and scare the villainous Wickham into marrying Lydia. It’s all tell and no show, but without it, there’s no revelation or transformation for Lizzie.

If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words…

Ever count how many words do you exchange every day with the people you meet? How many of those are worth preserving for posterity? How many of those have a transformative effect on your life story?

Direct dialogue is the stuff that’s worth repeating word for word; indirect dialogue is the stuff you paraphrase and headline for the sake of getting on with life.

It’s perfectly acceptable to mix a bit of tell amid a bit of show, because… plot and focus win out over the tedium of verisimilitude. Even though we’re brainwashed to believe Show is pure and true, while Tell is crude and evil.

If only I could read Chapter eighteen in Book One and not twitch at the break into Indirect Dialogue…

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