Practice Analyzing Dialogue

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Dialogue in literature can serve many purposes, including revealing character traits and moving the plot forward. Learn how to identify the different purposes of dialogue and how to analyze it by asking important questions. Updated: 10/20/2021

How to Analyze Dialogue

Whether we're casually talking with people, sharing a secret, or in the middle of a formal interview, conversations can teach us a lot about people and how they interact with others. Similarly, dialogue in novels, short stories, plays, and films can tell us a great deal and serve many purposes. There are different purposes that dialogue can serve. It can:

  • Reveal characters' personality traits, feelings, thoughts, and/or motives
  • Move the plot forward by motivating characters to make decisions or take action
  • Reveal important details or secrets

In order to analyze dialogue in a text, we need to ask ourselves some important questions:

  • Which of the aforementioned purposes does this section of dialogue serve? It can serve more than one.
  • Is it necessary to the plot, as opposed to casual conversations in everyday life?
  • Have words been chosen carefully so that the dialogue is written in a clear and concise manner?
  • Are the characters' voices unique and easy to distinguish so that we immediately know who is speaking?

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  • 0:02 How to Analyze Dialogue
  • 1:04 Leonard's Dialogue
  • 2:18 Hansberry's Dialogue
  • 5:13 Morrison's Dialogue
  • 7:13 Lesson Summary
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Leonard's Dialogue

Dialogue should always sound realistic, but it shouldn't go on and on, as we tend to do in real life. So, writers often need to cut out unnecessary sections of dialogue where the reader isn't learning anything new and nothing is happening. Your typical daily conversation of:



'How are you?'

'I'm well, you?' doesn't keep the reader interested. It's usually best if dialogue sections are meaningful but brief. The words that characters say should convey a great deal.

American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard was known for sparse but meaningful dialogue. Here's an example from his crime novel Out of Sight, which also became a feature film:

'Your dog was killed?'

'Got run over by a car.'

'What did you call it?'

'Was a she, named Tuffy.'

This exchange sounds pretty natural, yet there are very few words here. The purpose of including this bit of dialogue is clear: it reveals important details, which provide background information about the characters. Leonard's sparse wording is a stylistic choice that many readers appreciate because we can learn something important without having to read a long, drawn out conversation.

Hansberry's Dialogue

A Raisin in the Sun is an award-winning play by Lorraine Hansberry that had a great deal of success on Broadway, winning multiple Tony awards. The play paints a vivid picture of a few weeks in the life of the Younger family. They are an African American family living in Chicago in the 1950s.

The play opens with the news that they are about to receive a $10,000 life insurance check from the deceased Mr. Younger. Each family member has a different idea about what they should do with the money. Mama wants to buy a house because that was a dream she shared with her husband. Mama's adult son, Walter Lee, wants to invest in a liquor store with his friends because he thinks it will solve the family's financial problems:

'MAMA: Oh - So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life - now it's money. I guess the world really do change.'

'WALTER: No - it was always money, Mama. We just didn't know about it.'

'MAMA: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched. You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar. You my children - but how different we done become.'

These lines of dialogue serve the purpose of showing the characters' different ideas, which have been shaped by their experiences growing up in different generations. It also reveals their economic struggles. This important difference of opinion creates a conflict between them, which moves the story along. Walter expresses his belief that money is the answer to everything. It also shows that this is how he measures a person's success, while Mama values freedom and the progress that she and her husband tried to make.

This conversation is also taking place in the 1950s during the Civil Rights Movement in which people of color fought for equal rights and against racial discrimination, including housing discrimination. Walter hints at how important having money is when dealing with racial discrimination by saying 'It was always money, Mama. We just didn't know about it.'

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