Dialogue is a written account of a conversation, either between characters or in a character's head (inner dialogue). Strictly speaking, a dialogue is between 2 characters (di=two), but usually any conversation is refrred to as dialogue in contemporary literature. Incidentally, when one character speaks, it's a monologue. Dialogue and monologue are terms taken from classical Greek drama.

Most plays are, of course, composed of dialogue, with some stage directions and tips on design. Short stories are usually heavy on dailogue, as there isn't enough "time" in a short story to develop the inner lives of characters or go into detail as to setting,backstory, etc. A novel, however, has the luxury of sufficient "time" to lavish on such frivolities as flashbacks, foreshadowing, character development (through the musings of characters), finely-detailed description of the setting's geographical and historic situation, meandering plot lines, sub-plots and author rants disguised as speeches,newspaper articles and letters.

So the novel is not so dependent on dialogue as are other forms of literature. For example, I just opened my current book, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, at random to page 225. On that page, only about 10% of the words are dialogue.The rest is long chunks of action recounted as narrative (a story) rather than as dialogue, quotes from other works, and descriptions of the characters and their surroundings.

How does dialogue differ from narrative? Like this:

"Joe, I need to go home now," Keri said at last.
"O no, you can stay a bit longer, now, " Joe replied.

as opposed to

As the fire turned to coals, Joe and Keri fell into a deep silence. At last Keri said she needed to go home. Joe tried to get her to stay as bit longer.

The advantages of dialogue are the same as its disadvantages. It must sound authentic, as if the character might say such a thing in such a way. The advantage of well-crafted dialogue is that it adds to the richness of character development and provides a break from narrative, which tends to get boring in long paragraphs. The disadvantage is that dialogue is hard to write. It can easily sound stiff or even comical:

"Joe, I need to go home now," Keri said.
"But, Keri, I was hoping we could play another game of chess. I know I can beat you!"
"No, Joe, it's time for me to go."

Capturing the vocabulary and rhythms of speech is a special skill.  When people talk in real life, they often mumble, stammer, use filler words like "umm.." and "well...", make grammatical errors, and generally sound unpolished. Crisp, clever dialogue (think Jane Austen) is just not how the average person talks, And if you try to write as people talk (like Faulkner does in As I Lay Dying), you end up with confusion and lack of clarity. Which just about describes many actual conversations.

I cannot write consistently good dialogue. Before I know it, my characters sound like parodies of themselves. I'd rather write narrative, but contemporary fiction is disdainful of narrative, preferring the scatter-shot dialogue of real life. I don't know how many readers have the patience to read the stories that I like to write.


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