Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Indirect Dialogue


Spring (Apple Blossom),
Sir John Everett Millais, 1856-59,
Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Indirect dialogue is a device not often discussed - probably because it falls into that tricky gray area between Show and Tell - but the technique is not always an abridgement too far.

Such passages are used primarily to condense and summarize a conversation in the interests of pace.

Passages of indirect dialogue serve to provide necessary information as briefly as possible so as to not divert the reader's attention from the action.

The method is used to abbreviate/compress and/or avoid conversations that might otherwise consist of question and answer sessions of the where-where-when variety if the information was delivered in standard dialogue, back-and-forth form. Interviews and diatribes may also be effectively condensed by indirect.

They probably work best in first person POV, if - during this compression of conversation - the narrator manages to deliver flavour and tone of the other character's discourse.

He said I was excrement, a humongous steaming, spreading pile of excrement, a veritable prairie of excrement, an immense turd of measureless proportion and he would have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it...

19 comments:

Carla said...

Jane Austen does this brilliantly, using it to convey the tedium of a long and pointless conversation without making the reader sit through it.

Bernita said...

Ah, Carla, thank you!
I knew there were prime and authoritative examples, I just couldn't think of any.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This isn't a technique I use, I just realized. I do author discovery through direct dialogue, so I have to constantly weed it out and tighten.

Jaye Wells said...

My favorite is the old, "I filled him in on the plan" device. Used judiciously, of course.

Bernita said...

It doesn't suit every voice or character, SS.
And effectiveness may depend a lot on its location in the narrative.


Judicious use is the key, Jaye. Hitting the highlights of "the plan" keeps the essentials in the readers mind.

December/Stacia said...

I use it for memories, so as to avoid flashbacks. "Her parents told her she'd never amount to anything", IMO, is better than confusing the reader by suddenly transporting them back fifteen years in time.

raine said...

He said I was excrement, a humongous steaming, spreading pile of excrement, a veritable prairie of excrement, an immense turd of measureless proportion and he would have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it...

Hee-hee-heeee!!
A mild disagreement between characters, I see...

Another device I may have unconsciously employed, but never given much thought to.
Thank you, Bernita.

bunnygirl said...

Most speeches and instructions are excellent candidates for this.

You can just TELL me that Professor Suchandso explained quadratic equations. If I want to revisit each little detail of the process, I'll pick up an algebra book. And I don't need the WHOLE speech about President Slimeball's plan for the economy. Just hit the highlights.

Not everything that gets said is worth recording in detail. If it slows the action or doesn't advance the plot, skip it or summarize it. Otherwise you'll end up with sixteen pages of speechifying that'll have your reader skipping ahead to the good bits anyway, if you can get a reader at all. It's wasted pixels, either way.

Gabriele C. said...

Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World uses only indirect speech, and it works. At least in German.

Bernita said...

Think I prefer it to flashbacks, December.

Maybe it's not the best illustration of indirect, Raine, but I think it's a viable alternative to a page or so of extended dialogue.

"pages of speechifying that'll have your reader skipping ahead to the good bits anyway to show the same thing."
Thank you, Bunny. You've identified the main reason in certain circumstances for use of indirect.
Have found myself skipping dialogue for that very reason, especially when there's nothing new to be learned at the moment - except the information.

The technique may be more prevalent than one might expect, Gabriele.

Charles Gramlich said...

Anything that moves the story along through long and boring conversation is fine by me. I know a few books I've read that could have benefited from the liberal application of this technique.

Bernita said...

Me too, Charles!
Sometimes readers need the essential facts immediately, and direct dialogue, rather than ramp up tension, may diffuse it.

takoda said...

Oh, Bernita, I LOVE this!

He said I was excrement, a humongous steaming, spreading pile of excrement, a veritable prairie of excrement, an immense turd of measureless proportion and he would have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it...

I think it's also a great technique of showing how one character feels about what another character said, just by filtering key bits of information.

For example, combine your indirect dialogue with:

**
"Did your dad really call you a turd?" Steve interrupted me just as I was getting to the good part.

"Well...he almost did."
**

We know that Dad said something important, probably a lecture, and the MC filtered it in a most colorful way.

LOVE this!!

Steve G said...

Another interesting topic, but I'm unable to offer anything.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Chris!
The example is the result of putting my heroine in it.

You just did, Steve. Thank you.

Jon M said...

Agh! Show not tell, Point of view, they haunt me.

That's a nice picture and I live not far from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, I shall have to go and have a closer look!

Seeley deBorn said...

Oh the brilliant things I learn here. And ya know, I immediately thought of two placed I'd used this technique in my WIP.

Now I know what it's called.

Thanks!

Bernita said...

Not ALL "tell" is bad, Jon.

Hee, Seeley! I picked it up by osmosis and didn't know what it was called until I had to defend it.

writtenwyrdd said...

My critique group couldn't stand it when I (rarely) used indirect dialog. I think it's a current trend that it is deemed bad writing, instead of a functional or even stylistic choice.

Good post!