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You should always use Direct Dialogue, right?

Gold medal and trophy

I’ve always been told that direct dialogue (actually hearing the speaker’s words) is far superior and richer than indirect dialogue (summarizing what the speaker said). Direct dialogue alters something that could be somewhat mundane like: “He told me that his father had an affair and it devastated his mother” (reported).

And transforms it into this: “He had an affair. Didn’t he care about what it did to my mother, how devastated she was?”

It has more of an impact and reveals the character’s emotions. This is where I ran into my dilemma.

My readers asked for a sequel to my novel, Beyond Reach so, in my usual ‘let’s get ‘er done’ way, I plunged in. That’s when the problem bobbed to the surface.

Do I assume that my potential audience has already read my first novel? Or that the ones who have will remember everything that happened in it? I decided that they would need a few reminders.

But how can direct dialogue be used in a sequel, when the reader just needs to be reminded of an event or conversation from the previous book? What about those times when it just won’t work? What then?

woman with laptop writing
Photo: Vlada Karpovich · Pexels

A Direct Sister with Direct Dialogue

Two days ago, I let my sister (let’s just call her “Bossy” for reasons that will become obvious) read the first twenty pages of my sequel. I wanted an opinion before I presented the work to my critiquing group.

Bossy was visiting me and seemed interested. My brain must have stepped out for a minute when I handed over the pages. My older sister loves to criticize me, rolling her eyes over things that I do and say.

Bossy pursed her lips as she read, never a good sign.

“Why did you use indirect dialogue,” she said, when she finished. “It makes it boring.”

“Boring?” I sputtered. “It’s a sequel. My main character is just reporting what was said in the first book.”

“I would use flashbacks,” she replied, then treated me to her know-it-all smile. Bossy’s not a writer. Sure, she’s a high school English teacher but …

I disagreed and there it was … her eye roll.

Today l asked one of my closest friends to read the same twenty pages. When she finished, she set down the pages on the tabletop between us and said, “It’s a great first draft. Bossy doesn’t get it. Even if she’s right, she should keep her opinions to herself.”

“Exactly. Wait … you think she’s right?”

My friend shifted on her chair. “Well, it is a little slow, but you’ll fix it. It’ll be fantastic.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon at my computer, reading over those twenty pages far too many times. Half the pages referred to memories from the first novel.

I fiddled with one paragraph where my main character explains her father’s relationship with his brother, as shown in the original book. I’d written it in reported dialogue:

“Dad complained about his brother Matthew. He said that he was lazy, always looking for a hand-out.”

I went back to the original novel and copied the direct dialogue, from the main character’s father:

“I’m so damn sick of it.”

"His hesitant tone vanished as he worked up steam. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve had all the responsibility. Matthew runs around and has his fun, then he messes up and comes back home again. Wants me to save his ass. He’s just looking for a hand-out.”

Yeah, okay, that was a lot more interesting. But I couldn’t repeat scenes from book number one every time my character went back into a memory. Could I?

I was definitely not asking Bossy.

woman surrounded by drawings
Photo: Anna Shvets · Pexels

Reproducing a Scene (when direct dialogue doesn’t work)

Still, I took Bossy’s advice (without admitting it, of course) and used flashbacks as much as possible in the first twenty pages. The sequel evolved, hijacked my time, drew me into my character’s world and distanced me from mine.

I was suddenly there, in that glorious universe where I could reach out and grab creative ideas as they floated by, like picking cherries from overladen trees. Heaven.

Then I stopped to reread the pages and dropped the cherry basket. The twenty pages were now forty, and the majority of them were scenes from the first book. I had very little new material for the sequel.

“Dammit, Bossy! I knew this would happen.” Whatever possessed me to listen to her? And now, how would I fix it?

I’d like to say that, with all my years spent editing other peoples’ work and all the writing that I’ve done, I corrected it right away. But I didn’t.

It took many hours and a fair bit of cursing before I came up with a solution. Even then, I was uncertain so I asked my friend to read it again.

She turned the final page, looked up from her armchair and said, “I knew you could do it. It’s perfect.”

Whew. Twenty … no, thirty pages down, probably two hundred more to go.

hands holding lightbulb
Photo: Anete Lusina · Pexels

My Solution

I kept in as much direct dialogue as possible without including all the carefully constructed scenes. Here’s one example from my work in progress:

In the version that Bossy trashed, my main character simply reported the story of the letters that Hannah had delivered.

My daughter showed up one day in late September, handed over a bunch of letters that my mother had written to her sister Kate, even though Kate had died long ago. Hannah told me that I needed to see them, that they would answer my questions.

In the revised version, I gave a piece of the conversation without fleshing out the scene fully.

“Grandma wrote to her sister Kate,” Hannah told me, “even though she’d died long ago. Grandma kept the letters hidden for years and years. Before she passed away, she sent every one of them to me. She put a note with them.”

How could I not be drawn in? “What did it say?”

That’s when the smug tone surfaced. “She said no one else knew about the letters. But she wanted me to read them. When I was little she told me that, someday, she might share them.”

She added, “with someone special.” Then she paused before saying, “Grandma always liked secrets, didn’t she?”

“Thrived on them,” I said.

Perfect? No. But better.

There are still times when indirect (reported) dialogue is necessary, when going back in time to reveal part of a scene with direct dialogue interrupts the flow of the story. Contrary to everything we’ve been taught, indirect dialogue can be used successfully.

Basically, it’s a matter of finding the right balance; always making sure that nothing is jarring or confusing. A wise writer once told me that a story should “trot along like a pony”. Sometimes direct dialogue can break the pony’s stride at a crucial moment in the story.

Yet overall, direct dialogue is preferable. It captures the reader’s interest, reaches out and pulls them into a scene.

So I guess Bossy saved me from the wrath of my critiquing group and my editor’s slash-and-burn session. I really should tell her. Someday.