The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Bronwen Thomas

Most novels feature scenes of interaction between characters where the role of the narrator as a controlling presence is at a minimum. Such scenes are vital for characterization and building a sense of the relationships between characters. They also help to advance the plot, set the scene for the reader, and break up the tempo and pace of the narrative (see NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE). The direct representation of character speech has been crucial in opening up the novel to new voices, e.g., regional DIALECT and working-class speech in the nineteenth-century novel, or creoles and pidgins in postcolonial fictions. Studies of speech in the novel have provided exhaustive accounts of the sheer number of linguistic varieties that have been incorporated into the novel, and have raised important questions about the extent to which such representations aim for realism. Studies of fictional dialogue draw more explicitly on linguistic (see LINGUISTICS) models of conversational interaction to focus on the interplay and power dynamics between participants, and to evaluate how far such representations may be described as dialogic in Mikhail bakhtin's sense of the word. Analysis of speech-in-interaction in the novel increasingly engages with philosophical and ideological notions of dialogue in an attempt to understand how far “the idea of dialogue” may be both normative and culturally inscribed.

History and Form of Dialogue in the Novel

In the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novel, the conventions for representing character speech were not yet fully stabilized (Ree). Quotation marks could be used for both indirect and direct representations (Sternberg), while in the novels of Jane Austen it is common to find that what appears to be a single speech event bounded by quotation marks is in fact a conflation of several utterances (Page). It is not until the Victorian novel that the conventions become more “fussy” (Ree), helping to perpetuate a notion of the speech of an individual as his or her private property (see TYPOGRAPHY).

Later novelists continued to chafe against some of these conventions: the modernist writer James Joyce rejected quotation marks as an “eyesore,” preferring more unobtrusive dashes instead, while Portugese author José Saramago dispenses both with quotation marks and line breaks, making it even more difficult to distinguish between character speech and the surrounding narrative. Such techniques work against the notion that character speech is separated off from the narrative discourse as though by some impermeable border, and that direct speech offers the reader privileged access to the words of the characters untainted by the narrator's interventions.

Many of the conventions for the representation of speech in the early novel were influenced by theatrical practices and traditions. Daniel Defoe set out his dialogue in dramatic form, while many other early novelists in the English tradition, such as Henry Fielding, made their names writing for the stage before they turned to prose fiction. Conventions for the representation of speech in the novel have thus been influenced by the need to compensate for the absence of paralinguistic cues and the physical presence of the actors. Dialogue in the novel is thus accompanied by various kinds of “stage directions” (Page) which help to orient the reader in terms of body language, intonation, aspects of the physical environment, and so on.

In the nineteenth century, social and technological changes bringing greater mobility and speed of communication meant an increased interest in accurately charting social and regional varieties of speech. The practice of serializing novels in this period also meant a reliance on dialogue as a means of fixing characters in readers' minds, and of updating them on plot developments (see SERIALIZATION). Few studies of speech in the novel neglect to mention the role of Charles Dickens in providing a rich array of speech varieties for the reader to enjoy, and the fact that Dickens engaged in public performances of his work only serves to reinforce how much fictional dialogue owes to theatrical conventions and traditions.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, dialogue in the novel has been influenced by the emergence of other media, notably radio, television, and film. Many novelists have written for these other media, e.g., the English comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse wrote extensively for stage and screen. The contemporary novel continues to be fascinated by and influenced by new media, with new forms of writing such as hypertext fiction posing interesting questions for our understanding of the relationship between speech and context, where the context of utterances may be ever shifting and dependent on choices made by readers in their interactions with these texts.

Cultural histories of conversation and dialogue (Burke) remind us how far novelistic representations are shaped by, but also in turn may help shape, the norms and practices of a particular time and place (see SPACE). In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, an obvious illustration of this is the practice of using “token speech” (Page) for taboo words and obscenities, which in turn spawned its own parodies and attempts at subversion (see CENSORSHOP, PARODY). In the early twentieth century, psychoanalytic theories and the relationship between the said and the unsaid impacted the way in which modernist writers in particular experimented with the boundaries between speech and thought (see MODERNIS). However, novelists of the period also reacted against the Freudian notion of the “talking cure,” expressing instead a suspicion of talk (Mepham), focusing on the ways in which talk could be deceptive and opaque, rather than illuminating or transparent.

During the same period, novelists such as P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh made comic capital from foregrounding the clichés and banalities of the speech of the “Bright Young Things” of their day, in strong contrast to the kind of earnest debates and philosophical discussions of the characters in novels by their contemporaries. In this regard, the comic novel has provided an invaluable insight into, and playful subversion of, cultural norms in conversational interaction which might otherwise be taken for granted.

The Dialogue Novel

While dialogue as a narrative device has been recognized as a defining feature of certain fictional genres, notably the detective novel/thriller and the comic novel, the term “dialogue novel” or “novel of conversation” has emerged to account for fictions in which narrative framing is kept to an absolute minimum (see FRAME). The term may be loosely applied to any novel in which there is a high ratio of dialogue, but is usually reserved for novels where the author relies almost entirely on character speech for the “action,” and where the reader usually has to work quite hard to decipher what is going on, deprived as they are of any contextualizing cues or guidance from the narrator. In some respects the dialogue novel may appear to be aiming for greater realism by foregrounding the routine, the repetitive, and the downright banal aspects of everyday talk that may nevertheless be crucial in facilitating and maintaining communication. However, the attention to detail only seems to highlight how artificial and stylized any such representation must be, so that dialogue novels tend to be highly self-conscious and reflexive affairs.

In the English tradition, this genre is most associated with the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green in the early to mid-twentieth century. In the work of these writers, the reader is thrust into scenes of dialogue with little or no orientation, while the speech of the characters and the narrative technique are often highly stylized and artificial, adding to the disconcerting effect. While such novels are concerned with exploring scenes of talk as potentially rich sources of interpersonal drama and tension, they are just as interested in experimenting with NARRATIVE STRUCTUREs based on repetition and counterpoint, rather than on causal logic and progression.

In the modernist and postmodern novel, foregrounding speech and dialogue has come to be seen as a key way for the novel to embrace new voices, and to resist closure. In this respect, even the merest hint of narratorial influence and control may be suspect. The French novelist and critic Nathalie Sarraute railed against speech tags or inquits such as “he said,” “she said,” calling them “symbols of the old regime” for their potential to weigh down the reader and direct interpretation in a particular direction (see DISCOURSE).

The dialogue novel continues to flourish, particularly in the contemporary American novel, with writers such as William Gaddis and Philip Roth experimenting with the form. Many critics have noted that the contemporary novel has come to rely increasingly on dialogue, and that it has almost become a badge of honor for contemporary novelists to hone their technique in this direction.

Typically, the dialogue novel focuses on interactions between a closed set of characters, where the claustrophobic atmosphere evoked produces scenes of high tension. In Manuel Puig's El beso de la mujer araña (1976, Kiss of the Spider Woman), conversations between two prisoners locked in a cell together comprise much of the action, while Nicholson Baker's Counterpoint (2004) consists of a series of conversations between two men in a hotel room, as one of them tries to talk the other out of assassinating President George Bush.

There are good reasons why this kind of intimate duologue continues to dominate. Techniques for representing overlaps and interruptions in conversation remain rather crude and intrusive, and where a reader's attention is dispersed among a group of characters, engagement with those characters may lack the intensity generated by the duologue. Nevertheless, some novelists have experimented with group talk or multi-party talk (Thomas), or have disrupted the notion that conversations operate as ’events’ which are bounded and discrete, rather than ongoing and fuzzy around the edges.

Critical Studies and Debates

Studies of speech in the novel have provided invaluable inventories of the emergence and prevalence of linguistic varieties in the English-language novel. However, such studies rarely concern themselves with the mechanics of verbal interactions, but focus instead on describing speech varieties found within the utterances of individual characters. The analysis of speech-as-interaction in the novel owes a great deal to studies of dramatic dialogue, and to stylistic approaches which draw on tools and methods derived from the field of linguistics for the analysis of literary texts (see SPEECH ACT). Notably, such studies approach fictional dialogue as sequences and stretches of verbal interaction in which communication is jointly negotiated and achieved, and can be measured against certain expectations and assumptions about how conversations typically should proceed.

Such approaches have been accused of treating fictional dialogue as though it were no different from naturally occurring, or “real” speech. Debates about how far fictional dialogue should be evaluated in terms of its realism have dominated stylistic and narratological studies. To some extent, this is inevitable, as the representation of direct speech appears to present us with unmediated access to the characters' words, to show rather than tell. However, claims about the REALISM of direct speech ignore both the fact that the speech is no less artificial or mediated than any other part of the narrative discourse, and that writers shape and design these stretches of talk according to their artistic vision and design.

Mikhail BAKHTIN's studies of discourse in the novel demonstrated that it is possible to combine an exploration of the range of different languages represented within a novel (heteroglossia) with an analysis of the social and ideological conditions in which those languages are produced and with which they intersect. Furthermore, his theories challenged the idea that character speech is somehow subordinate to, and separable from, the narrative discourse. His “dialogic principle” demonstrated that novelistic discourse is suffused with a multiplicity of competing voices, which he saw as engaging in dialogic relation with one another. Bakhtin himself was dismissive of scenes of pure dialogue, as his analysis tended to focus much more on passages where the seemingly monologic discourse of the narrator is colored by the voices and perspectives of others. Nevertheless, many of the terms and ideas that he introduced have been crucial in determining both how we conceive of “dialogue” and how we understand the ways in which character speech and narratorial discourse interpenetrate at every point.

However, some theorists have taken issue with what they see as an idealizing tendency in the work of Bakhtin and others. Drawing on philosophical and ideological conceptualizations and debates, such work aims to demonstrate how forms of representation may help construct rather than simply reflect our “idea of dialogue.” Thus it is claimed that fictional dialogues help perpetuate the notion that civilized debate and discussion always produces some kind of truth, that all participants have equal access to the conversational floor, and that observing norms of politeness and rationality will always ensure communicative success. For some theorists, it is necessary instead to foreground the role of coercion in dialogue (Fogel), and to contest the privileging of some forms of talk over others (Davis), or a naïve conception of dialogue which ignores its incipient politics (Middleton).

Though there are fundamental oppositions between these various approaches to fictional dialogue, they all highlight in their own way both the extent to which this aspect of novelistic technique has been neglected, and the many fascinating and important questions that remain to be fully explored and debated.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Decorum/Verisimilitude, Ideology, Philosophical Novel.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist.

2. Burke, P. (1993), Art of Conversation.

3. Chapman, R. (1994), Forms of Speech in Victorian Fiction.

4. Davis, L.J. (1987), Resisting Novels.

5. Fogel, A. (1985), Coercion to Speak.

6. Leech, G. and M.H. Short (1981), Style in Fiction.

7. Mepham, J. (1997), “Novelistic Dialogue,” in New Developments in English and American Studies, ed. Z. Mazur and T. Bela.

8. Middleton, P. (2000), “ The Burden of Intersubjectivity,” New Formations 41: 31—56.

9. Page, N. (1988), Speech in the English Novel.

10. Ree, J. (1990), “ Funny Voices,” New Literary History 21: 1039—58.

11. Sarraute, N. (1963), Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion, trans. M. Jolas.

12. Sternberg, M. (1982), “ Proteus in Quotation Land,” Poetics Today 3(2) 107—56.

13. Thomas, B. (2007), “Dialogue,” in Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. D. Herman.

14. Toolan, M. (1985), “ Analyzing Fictional Dialogue,” Language and Communication 5: 193—206.