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What is a Dialogue in Literature? - Examples & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition & Purpose…
  • 1:10 Examples of Dialogue
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Angela Gentry
Dialogue is a primary vehicle of literature. Explore its many possible dimensions through examples and a lesson, and then test your new skills with a quiz.

Definition and Purpose of Dialogue

Statistics show that on average a human being, regardless of gender, will use 16,000 words per day. When you think of a human being's development from an infant who can only cry to an adult who is adept at communication, it's astounding. Since one of literature's primary aims is to replicate the human existence, and thereby search for meaning, writers from past to present have used dialogue to represent our communicative faculties.

In literature, dialogue is simply a stylized written or spoken exchange between two or more people. While it's a prevalent tool in fiction, we also see it in nonfiction and poetry. A writer's use of dialogue dates back to classical literature, namely Plato's Republic and other such works. Plato and other philosophers largely used the dialogic method for argument and rhetorical purposes. In modern literature, we use dialogue to color a character's personality, create conflict, advance a plot, showcase vernacular (the language or dialect spoken by the native people of a region), and so on. Let's take a look at some examples to see how skilled writers have used dialogue for meaning and resonance.

Examples of Dialogue

In the first example, master of language Ernest Hemingway uses dialogue to simmer conflict like sauteed vegetables bubbling on the stove. Here's an excerpt from his short story, 'Hills Like White Elephants':

...'I realize,' the girl said. 'Can't we maybe stop talking?'

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

'You've got to realize,' he said, 'that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.'

'Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along.'

'Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want anyone else. And I know it's perfectly simple.'

'Yes, you know it's perfectly simple.'

'It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it.'

'Would you do something for me now?'

'I'd do anything for you.'

'Would you please please please please please please please stop talking.'

He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights...

While not explicit in the story, the 'it' that the girl (Jig) and the American are discussing is an abortion. He claims repeatedly that it's 'simple,' but the imagery in the story of the crossroads at the railway station (their setting) is an indication that Jig is at a crossroads in her decision about the baby, as well as about her relationship with the American. What's masterful about Hemingway's use of dialogue here is that the tension, or conflict, is so muted. Because of the nondescript pronoun of 'it,' Hemingway accomplishes a twofold purpose: he implies their intimacy in their familiar manner of conversing, and he also intimates the frequency of this conversation. It's a topic they've beaten into the ground, and Jig's seven-repeated 'please's are an explosion of her inner-turmoil.

Let's turn our attention to a different example, where we can see the use of vernacular in dialogue. Here's an excerpt from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:

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