One important element in constructing a novel is dialogue. This, along with narrative summary, is the primary methods in which the story is presented to the reader.

The aim of this section is to show you that dialogue should be treated as an independent element with its own rules. You’ll also discover how beats can be used to add structure to your dialogue. Once you have studied this section, you will be able to identify internal and external dialogue, you will also be able to construct beats within your speech.

This section focuses on speech from an elemental viewpoint. The more nitty gritty aspects of formatting and presenting speech will be addressed later in the course.

What is Dialogue?

In its most simple form, dialogue are the words that characters say. Though this seems obvious, it is important to recognized that dialogue is separate from narrative summary.

Take this example from The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Hemingway.

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

“Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?” Macomber asked.

“I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.

“I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.

“I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”

The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.

“What had I ought to give them?” Macomber asked.

“A quid would be plenty,” Wilson told him.

“You don’t want to spoil them.”

“Will the headman distribute it?”

“Absolutely.”

The sections in bold are narrative summary, the other sections are dialogue. These two separate elements combine to make up the story.

In its most simple form dialogue can be identified by the fact they are in speech marks.

The dialogue we see in the extract above is external dialogue. These are words that are spoken aloud by characters. There is another type of dialogue, this is internal dialogue. These are words that are thought by a character.

The way internal dialogue is handled will depend on the viewpoint in which you are writing. In first person, the internal dialogue is the narrative voice, they are the same thing. This means that internal dialogue is presented as narrative summary, whilst external dialogue is the speech.

In third person it is different. If you are writing in third person limited or third person omniscient, then the external dialogue will be presented in the narrative summary but will be identified to the reader. This might be via a phrase such as…

Tom entered the basement. It was pitch black and he groped in the dark for the light switch. Wow, it is cold in here, thought Tom.

Or it might be separated by formatting, for example.

Tom entered the basement. It was pitch black and he groped in the dark for the light switch. Wow, it is cold in here.

In this second example, the external dialogue is shown in italics.

There’s no right or wrong, it is down to the writer.

If you are writing in third person objective, then you will not be using internal dialogue and the story will be solely presented via external dialogue and narrative summary. As an editor, it is not uncommon for a writer to be writing in third person objective but let thoughts slip into the narrative. If this is the case, then they need to be removed.

Beats

Having clarified the wider aspects of dialogue, I wanted to spend a little time talking about beats. These are the short sections of narrative summary that come between sections of external dialogue. When we come to learned about characterization and showing, not telling, beats will become important tools in your writing toolbox.

Below is a short section from Roald Dahl’s Lamb to The Slaughter. I have put the beats in italics.

“I’ll get it!” she cried, jumping up.

“Sit down,” he said.

When he came back, she noticed that the new drink was a very strong one. She watched him as he began to drink.

“I think it’s a shame,” she said, “that when someone’s been a policeman as long as you have, he still has to walk around all day long.” He didn’t answer. “Darling,” she said, “If you’re too tired to eat out tonight, as we had planned, I can fix you something. There’s plenty of meat and stuff in the freezer.” Her eyes waited to an answer, a smile, a nod, but he made no sign. “Anyway,” she went on. “I’ll get you some bread and cheese.”

At this point, all that is important is that you are able to see beats as separate from dialogue. The reason is that beats can be used as tools to control the pace of your dialogue, as ways to add characterization and represent a good way to show rather than tell. We will examine this more in the following units.