Definition of Dialogue

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people in a work of literature. Dialogue can be written or spoken. It is found in prose, some poetry, and makes up the majority of plays. Dialogue is a literary device that can be used for narrative, philosophical, or didactic purposes. The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was a chief proponent of dialogue, and the Socratic Method that is named after him involves a great deal of asking and pondering over questions.

The word dialogue comes from the Greek word διάλογος (dialogos), which means “conversation,” and is a compound of words meaning “through” and “reason or speech.” Thus, the definition of dialogue developed as a way of creating meaning through speech.

Common Examples of Dialogue

Dialogue is an important aspect of every day life, and plays a large part in business and political negotiations, as well as in education and conflict resolution in any type of relationship. People who have different opinions and backgrounds are often encouraged to come together in dialogue to understand the other person’s thinking better.

Dialogue forms a large part of all parts of life, and can be used for humorous purposes as well, such as between the comedian duo Abbott and Costello:

Abbott: Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names.
Costello: Funny names?
Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third–
Costello: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.
Abbott: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third–
Costello: You know the fellows’ names?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well, then who’s playing first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name on first base.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The fellow playin’ first base.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first base.
Abbott: Who is on first.
Costello: Well, what are you askin’ me for?
Abbott: I’m not asking you–I’m telling you. Who is on first.
Costello: I’m asking you–who’s on first?
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s who’s name?
Abbott: Yes.

Significance of Dialogue in Literature

Dialogue plays a large part in almost all works of fiction, while forming the majority of every play, even the absurdist ones. Indeed, the goal of most works of drama is to highlight the relationships between different characters by way of dialogue. There are some examples of dialogue in poetry as well, though it is rarer. Dialogue is not just words spoken; instead, dialogue reflects an active choice made on the part of each character to instigate conflict and resolve problems, ask and answer questions, and push the narrative along in numerous ways. The way that characters speak hints at their underlying psychoses, desires, motivations, opinions, and so on. Thus, dialogue is not a superfluous aspect of a piece of literature but a fundamental way in which characters interact, change, reach conclusions, and make decisions to act.

There are examples of dialogues dating back to the third millennium BC in works from the Middle East and Asia. The Greek philosopher Plato adopted his mentor Socrates’s method of dialogue to examine different belief systems.

Examples of Dialogue in Literature

Example #1

ROMEO: (taking JULIET’s hand) If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In this example of dialogue, the characters of Romeo and Juliet begin to fall in love. In this excerpt the language they use is very powerful because it has a real effect on both of them. Using wit and euphemism, the two teenagers charm each other and share their first kiss. In this case, the dialogue propels them into the action of rejecting their families’ wishes and puts them on the track that leads to their downfall.

Example #2

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

This is a dialogue example from a poem. In this case, the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” is going mad. A raven enters his library and does not leave him alone. The narrator tries to entreat the raven to leave him, but all the raven will answer him is with the word “nevermore.” This dialogue between a hallucinating man and his delusion makes his madness all the more obvious.

Example #3

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said.
‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said.
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” does not include much description or character development. The majority of the story is a dialogue between an unnamed man and girl. Hemingway makes nothing explicit in this dialogue, but instead relies on subtext and suggestion to show that the two characters are contemplating an abortion. Though it seems inane at times, the dialogue is actually extremely important, as it convinces the girl to go through with the operation.

Example #4

JIM: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?
LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses.
JIM: It’s lost its—
LAURA: Horn! It doesn’t matter. . . . [smiling] I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!

(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie contains only four characters, and the way they talk to each other greatly effects their lives. The character of Jim comes to visit the Wingfield family. Unbeknownst to him, Laura Wingfield had always had a crush on him and hopes that his visit will save her from her loneliness. Jim accidentally knocks into Laura’s glass menagerie and breaks the horn off of her favorite animal, the unicorn. However, there is much symbolism in this action, as the dialogue between Laura and Jim makes Laura feel less “freakish,” just as her unicorn finally becomes normal.

Example #5

ROSENCRANTZ: What are you playing at?
GUILDENSTERN: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.

(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard)

Absurdist playwright Tom Stoppard wrote his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead using two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The two characters share many bizarre exchanges throughout the play, but there is also much lucidity. In the above example of dialogue, Guildenstern notes that words are “all we have to go on.” Indeed, the play shows the importance of words and clear communication, and how lives can be lost when communication breaks down.

Test Your Knowledge of Dialogue

1. Which of the following statements is the best dialogue definition?
A. A short speech that a character makes in private.
B. A conversation between two or more characters.
C. An aside that a protagonist makes.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true of dialogue examples?
A. They are a literary device used to reveal characters’ opinions and desires, and propel the narrative forward.
B. They have no effect on the action of a play or novel.
C. They cannot be found in poetry.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is false about examples of dialogues?
A. Dialogues have been used in philosophical treatises, peacekeeping negotiations, and comedy routines.
B. Dialogues are capable of affecting characters in both minor and profound ways.
C. Dialogues can only occur between two characters.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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