Critical Reading: Unit 4 Narrative and structure

4.4 Dialogue

Dialogue (from roots meaning ‘through’ and ‘speak’) means verbal linguistic exchange; spoken language between two or more people; and, in our case, the literary representations of that. Monologue (from root words meaning 'one' and 'word') means speech produced by one person, and in our case its literary representation. Obviously, dialogue is crucial to dramatic texts, but it is also important in narrative fiction and does feature in some poetry. Usually, dialogue is easy to spot in printed texts, because each new speaker's contribution is indented and enclosed in inverted commas:

'Shall we go now?', said John.
'Certainly,' replied Hazel.

Not all authors follow these conventions, however. James Joyce, for example, didn't use inverted commas.

The conventions for representation of speech are quite straightforward, but what about the representation of thought? At its simplest, we might have something like this:

John thought the party was becoming boring. 'Shall we go now?', he asked. Hazel was enjoying herself, but she didn't want to irritate John. 'Certainly,' she said.

The narrative voice is telling us what John and Hazel felt and thought. If the author had wanted to give us a more direct sense of John and Hazel's thought, though, he or she might have written the lines like this:

This party is boring, thought John. 'Shall we go now?' Oh no, I'm just beginning to have fun, thought Hazel. He'll be tetchy all night if I say no. I'd better agree. 'Certainly.'


David's gone… hate this music … wine's undrinkable … Adam's leaving… no one worth talking to … ugh this wine's vinegary … Hazel's still yakking to Martine … football's on at 11… so bored … . 'Shall we go now?' Is my nose red? Should I have any more? Just one. Shall I dance? Would I look a fool? 'Yes, love it. Where did you buy it?' Doesn't suit her. 'Have you heard about Lucy?' Yes, I'll get away from her and dance. 'No? Really? Who?' What's John doing? Putting down his glass. Go? Now? But I'm just beginning to have fun … I don't want to … have to, though … he gets so tetchy when he can't go the instant … drumming his fingers now … impatient. 'Certainly.'

What are the differences between the different ways of representing the thoughts and speech of these characters? How does the presence of the narrative voice change? Are the representations of thoughts really very like the way we think? How could they be made more like the thought process?

Individual activity: Narrative techniques

Read these short sections from Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell: pp. 246–247 ('free indirect discourse') and pp. 299–300 ('stream of consciousness'), and the entries on ‘free indirect speech’ and ‘stream of consciousness’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, via the Oxford Reference Online resource.

Group activity: Commentary

Follow the links below to the opening section of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and the last section of James Joyce's Ulysses. Try to identify the different techniques used by the authors to represent speech and thought. Post your responses to the Narrative and structure forum.

Mrs Dalloway at Project Gutenberg

Ulysses at Project Gutenberg

Optional activity: Further exploration

If the novels intrigue you, read more of them. Don't forget to add entries on the texts you have looked at this week to your blog. If you have encountered other texts that use similar techniques, recommend them via the Book club forum.

Further help and information

If you would like more help, or more details about the techniques touched on in this session, read the notes on some techniques for representing the interior monologue.

Group activity: Interior monologue

Write a short piece of stream of consciousness no more than six lines long, and post it to the Narrative and structure forum. Post comments on others' pieces.