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I can usually tell the story I want to in less than 10,000 words. I'd really like to accomplish writing a novel and I have a complex idea I want to use and explore, but I am worried I won't need 75,000 words to tell it.

Most popular novels are chock full of dialogue, and I find it easy to write. I'd feel guilty about padding out a story when I could easily paraphrase or summarise a conversation though. Is dialogue necessary?

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Short answer: dialogue is completely necessary, since dialogue reads completely differently from summary. –  JSBձոգչ May 25 '13 at 1:44
    
The only time I write without dialogue is when I write first person past tense, this is because it feels unnatural to me to have live dialogue in what is effectively a recounting of events. With that exception @JSBձոգչ is right, dialogue is a vital part of a story. –  CLockeWork May 28 '13 at 13:43
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Isn't most of any story 'padding' in this sense? Why sit through four hours of Titanic, you already know the ship sinks (oh, and there's a girl)? It's not 'Robin Hood', it's 'There is a guy who's good at archery and he uses it to rob the rich to give to the poor (oh, and there's a girl).' Gone with the Wind? The South lost (oh, and there's a girl). If it helps you tell the story, it isn't padding. If it really is padding, then it isn't helping you tell the story. –  Lazarus May 28 '13 at 19:41
    
Are you writing a novel or a report? The fundamental difference is IMMERSION. The reader lives through the events in his imagination, and inevitably the events will have characters conversing. By relaying the conversation faithfully, you maintain the immersion. If you just dump the clue of the conversation, you're committing the cardinal sin of beginner authors: "Telling, not showing". –  SF. Oct 27 at 9:32

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Since the author’s voice in a novel can communicate both the character’s actions and directly relate their state of mind, there is no fundamental need for novels to contain dialogue. That being said, your question also hinted at story length and a fondness for economy in writing, which I think is a good thing. The path to reaching larger stories is not filling them with padding (material which serves only to take up space). I’ve belonged to a number of writer’s groups and have found that budding novel writers often view dialogue as extraneous because they don’t understand how it works.

In screenwriting (my hobby) story must be conveyed exclusively with character actions and dialogue. Metaphors, literary style, overt exposition, and character thoughts are all off limits. This forces great economy on a story. A typical two hour film script only contains about 20,000 words. The point here is, screenwriting forces a writer to use dialogue to convey story. Good dialogue can do a lot.

When members of my writer’s group, unaccustomed to dialogue, attempted to employ dialogue in their stories; it typically accomplished nothing. The problem invariably arose from the same two issues: lack of subtext and conflict in their dialogue.

Every effective piece of dialogue in a film will have something going on below the surface of the conversation (all is not what it appears). Overtly, a conversation might involve a protagonist making small talk with a security guard, but in actuality, the protagonist is attempting to con her way into the building. This is subtext. Screenwriter’s call dialogue without subtext, “on the nose writing.”

Since drama is conflict, the use of dialogue in storytelling requires that it contain and advance character conflict. So even if an exchange of dialogue is small and focused, it must contain it’s own conflict. Continuing the example above, the security guard suspect’s he’s being conned, so he subtly attempts to learn more about the protagonist who of course doesn’t wish to be discovered. Now the dialogue contains both subtext and conflict.

If you want to learn more about dialogue learn from the best, pick up some books on screenwriting or playwriting.

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The short, cop-out answer is: It depends.

Longer explanation is: It depends on the type of novel you're writing, and also on your skill level as an author. It's possible, and common enough, to have none if you're writing the kind of novel that's epistolary (written communication, eg. letters, reports, postcards) or a monologue from the main character(s). But I suspect that's not what you're talking about.

As far as I know - and I'm happy to be corrected here - this is rarely done because it breaks so many rules of storytelling. Sure, dialogue can move into padding out territory, but that's what edits are for - to cut ruthlessly and rewrite until you've conveyed the information in the least amount of words.

Summarising a speech from time to time is fine, when there's nothing noteworthy about it, and detailing the dialogue wouldn't give the reader an expanded view of the world, the characters, or the plot. I just wouldn't cut it out completely.

Once you start reporting or summarising speeches, you're moving from "show" territory into "tell" territory. A single phrase can show the reader so much about a person and their current state of mind, that would take an author many more words to describe if they're merely reporting. For example:

Reported speech: He asked her what she was doing.
Dialogue 1: "What'cha doin'?"
Dialogue 2: "What the bloody hell are you doing?"
Dialogue 3: "W-w-w-what are y-y-you doing?"
Dialogue 4: "If I may be so bold, may I ask what the young Miss is doing?"
Dialogue 5: "By the bloody battleaxe of the wargod Sarnis, what on earth are you up to now?"

And that's only a few examples without any kind of context, action or dialogue attribution that will add more texture to such a simple question.

I'll admit, it is possible to cut out all dialogue in a novel and simply summarise everything. Is it usually the best way to get a reader invested in a story and connected emotionally? No. Is it usually the most economical way to convey one character's thoughts and feelings about another? No.

If you're a master storyteller, you may well pull it off, because after many, many years of experience you'll know it's the best way for your story to be told. You'll also know the best way to break the rules, since you understand the rules. If you're still starting off, however, I'd be a lot more cautious about doing something so "avant-garde".

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It's never a cop out if you follow "it depends" by talking about what it depends on ;-) –  Dale Emery May 24 '13 at 23:51
    
A simple workaround is to assume the character to have been born deaf (hence, also mute). This would also justify whatever advanced language you use through his voice, since he learned it all through books, etc. \\ Simple to consider; but, I think, very difficult to tackle. –  Mussri May 25 '13 at 8:22
    
@DaleEmery It's not a cop-out to say "it depends" if you, (a) say what it depends on, and (b) give some idea of the range of possibilities. Not to criticize Lexi's answer, it's a fair answer, just following this tangent. I hate it when I ask something like, "How much will this cost?" and the other person says, "Oh, that depends. You'll pay more for higher quality and better service," etc, and never gives me a range or ballpark. If you tell me, "Well, typical prices are about $100 to $500. Less than $100 and it probably will break in a week. If you want ..." etc, that's a fair answer. –  Jay May 28 '13 at 11:52
    
To get all semantics, Lexi gave two answers. The first was a cop out, the second wasn't. –  Steve Bennett Jun 3 '13 at 8:10

@Lexi makes a good point here; dialogue is a vital tool to express a character's personality, opinions and so on in a "show" way rather than a "tell" way.

Dialogue enables us to connect directly to the characters. Reported speech has its place, but it makes it feel like I'm sitting here and you're telling me what happened, when what I really want is to experience what happened myself. There are places for it through, for instance; if you have a person who has to explain an event to everyone they meet (Yet again Darryl told his tale, watching the guard's face move from bored, to confused to plain disbelieving.)

Also, and I can't stress this enough, dialogue creates more white space in your pages. A novel with nothing but paragraph after paragraph of narrative and heavy prose is hard on the reader; they like to fly through the pages as it's the only way to stay engaged in the story. If you reject dialogue you make your text harder to read, and you disassociate the reader.

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Lexi is surely right in saying "it depends". But that said, a novel with no dialog would be quite strange. If you had a story about someone living alone on an island or some such, the story might be purely narration and his internal train of thought. One can always dream up other odd cases, like a story about aliens who do not speak but communicate by waving their tentacles in standardized patterns.

But if you're talking about a story about people who, in fact, interact by speaking, then how would you have no dialog? Would you repeatedly write thinks like, "Bob told Ann that ..."? If you had some point in doing this, like you're trying to say something about the nature of communication, maybe. But I think it would be largely a gimmick. It could work for a short story, but for a novel, I think you'd be beating the gimmick to death.

Dialog is not "padding", it's a key component of most stories. Well, I suppose almost everything that happens in a fiction story is "padding" in some sense. You could reduce, say, "Casablanca" to, "During World War 2, a French resistance leader and his wife, trying to escape from the Nazis, are trapped in Casablanca. They meet a man who turns out to be a former boyfriend of the wife and who convinces her to leave her husband and stay with him. But then he concludes that this would be wrong, tells her to stay with her husband, and helps the two of them to escape. The end." That about sums up the story, but rather leaves out everything that made it a great story. Without the action, the suspense, the playing out of the romance, etc, we're left with a very dry and boring tale.

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I don't mean nil dialogue, but it's possible to have a few important exchanges plus some commentary around the quotes. When I write in the first-person, my main character can provide a fairly detailed description/interpretation of events that makes detailed dialogue exchanges sometimes seem a little out of place. Maybe my style of writing makes dialogue less necessary (hostile and background events usually reflecting some part of the protagonist's personality). –  johntait.org May 28 '13 at 13:55

In most stories, one doesn't necessarily need a lot of dialogue but it sure helps to display the character's personality more than just telling your readers what they did.

I think of it as "showing" vs "telling." A short expletive of especially creative invention can go a long way to describe who your character is, instead of using a lengthy sentence to describe their frustration, for instance.

Personally, I often start out with summary, then attempt to play it out in an active scene between two or more people, to see if this helps further my story. Sometimes I get new and better ideas this way, also; a sort of "improv" workshop cut just for that scene. It may "pad" it a slight bit, but it usually adds a richer experience for the reader, making those extra few pages worth it in the end.

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Dialogues are not easy to write. Bad dialogues are easy to write. I use dialogues a lot and I think they - if well used - can make a text richer.

My answer to you is: depends on the writer's style.

In my case, since I really like dialogues, it's essential. Other writers may almost don't use dialogues at all.

Of course you can insert dialogues inside paragraphs and reduce the padding a lot, or you can create dialogues in context where the real dialogue does not appears at all. There are a lot of ways to do the same thing. Chase the ones you want and follow that path.

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Interestingly enough, I read a full-sized novel that had (theoretically) no dialogue. Not to say that the characters weren't speaking; they were. Yet in this 100,000-150,000 word novel, not one quote/unquote mark was made. Period. I wouldn't call this good writing, necessarily, but it worked in the book.

"Run", by Douglas E. Winters, if you're interested. I think it might be out of print.

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If you're writing a scene where you find yourself cutting the dialog, maybe the entire scene needs to be cut (or cut down). Everything, dialog or not, should be furthering the story or the character.

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The real difference about whether or not you use dialog is based in two terms:

  1. Narrative
  2. Exposition

Which one you choose and to what extent will completely alter your story. Here are a couple of drastic examples:

Narrative

John Robinsky felt very angry and decided to obtain revenge upon his company for the way they had abused him.

Exposition

John Robinsky slammed his fist down on his desk. "Blast! You can't do this to me again." He squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them again and smiled. "No. You won't ever be able to do this to me or anyone again," John whispered. "I'll make sure."

The difference is whether you have a (more) distant narrative voice telling the reader how John felt or you show actions and words spoken to indicate to the reader what John is feeling.

Exposition is often more difficult to write, but it is generally far more interesting to read. As a writer you have to see the action taking place in the mind's eye and then transcribe it.

Also, note that exposition employs the reader far more and engages her much more as she has to figure out what is being communicated by the actions and dialog she sees in the story. For this reason it is generally far more immersive than narrative voice.

This is also why a larger percentage of readers like stories with dialog.

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