Shakespeare did it, he did it quite a lot of times, but there are a few problems with it:

  1. He was a screenwriter in an age, where we couldn't afford building enough sets (or cities that don't catch on fire), so dumping info in dialogue was easier not financially impossible.
  2. He's sorta "outdated" (the writing, not his corpse).
  3. I have to share the scarce resources of this planet with people who thought that it'd be a good idea to place Romeo and Juliet into a modern era.

However, I'd like to give the story some depth with uninterrupted chit-chats, like Graham McNeil.


[Protagonist]: Ya' know, it's kinda hard to believe that you're doing this for the greater good when your special snowflake sword is literally made out of slaughtered toddlers. But why would you even need it? Order can be maintained with a regular drone army and a few operators.
[A.I sidekick]: Who are unwitting orphans...
[Protagonist]: At least I take a good care of them!
[A.I sidekick]: Sure, they are valuable tools.
[Protagonist]: That's not even...
[Antagonist]: You're calling me a mass murderer!? Have you forgotten, when you turned an entire race into unstoppable robots, who only knew and desired nothing else than destruction?
[Protagonist]: That wasn't intentional, you shittalking corpse!
[Antagonist]: Not to mention the other mass murderer you made, the Anathema. Your race had the opportunity to prove themselves as the defenders of order, and they instead caused the war that left its mark in the universe for the rest of eternity.
[Protagonist]: Most of those were Enlil's fault, and he was way too scary looking for everyone else to doubt him. As for Big E., he didn't take his sweet little time going on a treasure hunt, and instead, immediately started to bring back the "order" you adore so much. He ended up as a glorified skeleton, but that was Horus' fault. Admit it, you just want power, you want to take power, like stealing daddy's gun and pretending to be the strong kid while you don't even know how to reload. This is why you've failed.
[Antagonist]: Don' think it's over yet, let us see how much your words worth against steel!
[Protagonist]: I'd rather prefer my pen against that.

So, I can't really chop this dialog apart, as it's nothing else than a battle of wits. So, if there's any, what are the things I can do to make this more readable?

  • Are you trying to write a screenplay? Or just comparing a screen play with a novel?
    – user18397
    Sep 26, 2017 at 23:19
  • @Thomo It's not a big deal in screenplays, but the reader would be scared off if it was done in a novel. Sep 27, 2017 at 18:38
  • 2
    That's because you're comparing apples with screwdrivers
    – user18397
    Sep 27, 2017 at 20:37
  • "the reader would be scared off if it was done in a novel" -- the first chapter of Iain Bank's novel The Business is entirely dialogue. 5 pages of dialogue. No actions, no character name tags, just two people talking. And it's entirely compelling, and not at all scary. (Unless you're afraid of dentists).
    – Jules
    Sep 29, 2017 at 23:43

4 Answers 4


The answer to your question is in the very story you linked to.

Yes, the entire story revolves around the conversation between the two characters. But it is broken by the actions or movements of the people talking.

People don't just stand still and talk to each other. They move around, the gesture, they look around. They sigh or scoff or laugh or shrug.

Graham McNeil does it well, he highlights who's talking. He gives them just enough movement and momentum for it to appear natural and not like they are jumping around. He gives them emotion.

Consider the following extract from The Last Church:

"And the whole world came running when the fresco was revealed," quoted Revelation, his gaze lingering on the panel depicting the knight and the dragon. 'And the sight of it was enough to reduce all who say it to stunned silence.'

'You have read your Vastari,' said Uriah.

'I have,' agreed Revelation, only reluctantly tearing his gaze from the ceiling.

The conversation is organic, they are not just standing in a vacuum talking to each other. There is interaction with the setting, and most importantly, movement and life within the characters.

Edit: To further expand, the main difference is in the media you are presenting in. Shakespeare, and other screen plays, have a visual and auditory aspect that books do not. The audience can see the characters move, gesture etc. They can here them shouting or talking. They can see the set, see them interact with it. Books do not have that ability. It is up to you to paint the scene in the readers mind - you have to build it and make it organic. It's up to you to show the interactions, not the players on stage.


If you've every tried to act Shakespeare, you would know that it is incredibly difficult to stop many of the speeches just being boring because that are such long pieces of uninterrupted speech. It was a different time, a different place and different genre. He is not a model you should try to emulate. However, the statement about sets, etc. doesn't hold true -- minimalist sets are quite common in modern drama. For example, a group of people walk onto the stage and one says: 'Look at all this gold, all these paintings. This tomb is amazing.' The audience doesn't even need a backdrop.

One way to deal with breaking up the story in drama is to have different characters talk about it. One character can be having an argument with the captain. A third one can explain to a fourth why there is antagonism between them. This means you don't just have two people talking to each other.

Some novelists are very successful using long pieces of dialogue. For example, Dorothy L Sayers often has characters speak for a page uninterrupted and it doesn't sound wrong.


Take my advice for what it's worth: I haven't ever sold a book!

I think walls of text can be interesting if they tell interesting stories.

My model for this is Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment, there are monologues longer than anything Shakespeare ever dreamed of doing. They give me chills when I read them. In Chapter 2 Raskolnikov meets a drunk in a bar, Marmeladov, who proceeds to tell Raskolnikov the story of his failed marriage, his wife's painful history, and the first time his daughter prostituted herself to support his drinking habit. He doesn't stop talking for hundreds of words, and every word is interesting.

I read "Aspects of the Novel," by E.M. Forster, and one thing he touches on is how the best works in English can't touch the psychological depth of the best works in Russian. I think one of the reasons is that the Russian style allows for more in-depth treatment of certain subjects.

There are some interesting stories hinted at in your dialogue. I guess the theory is 1) bait the reader with hints to interesting stories, and 2) tell the stories later. Why not tell one of the stories in the dialogue itself? Treat it as a 500 word flash fiction exercise. Pour everything into it, emotion, action, your soul. I don't think losing readers is automatically a function of length. Quality also plays a role.

I look at this in the same way I look at pop music. To the aspiring songwriter, you'd say, "Keep it short, attractive hooks, solos no longer than twenty seconds," and so on. The idea is that if you follow the advice, you're Justin Bieber, or the Beatles. George Harrison's creativity is limited to a few calculated riffs, and the song moves on.

Do I think it's bad advice? No, I think it's great advice.

And yet, jazz exists too, and it breaks all those rules. You can give an instrumentalist a twenty minute solo, if it's the right instrumentalist and the right band, and you might reach greater depths in the music than you would by following the rules. Of course, if the solo is bad, better short than long!

I get the brevity thing. I really do. I'm not a millenial, but I spend a lot of time on the computer hopping from thing to thing. We're distracted. We have short attention spans. And yet, some of my favorite passages in literature are long chunks of text, especially dialogue. So there's that, too.

  • “haven't ever sold” but have you attempted and been rejected, or simply never done it? Oct 9, 2017 at 4:59

+1 Thomo. To expand, IRL two people do not stand still and stare at each other and spout dialog while only moving their mouths. Even if they are on the phone! They are doing something, thinking something, wondering, realizing, pausing for some good reason to collect their thoughts or feel some emotion or try to understand a puzzle. The have senses, they hear their environment, they sense temperature and breezes and sun revealed by clouds moving on. They sense incongruities. They are not ready with a memorized answer, after a question imparts new information or a surprise.

Such statements require thinking, thinking requires recall of similar situations, they are reminded of scenes and imagery that relate. That translates into what they say next.

Why the second line "Who are unwitting orphans"? Who was the speaker thinking of? How does he know? Why was he disgusted by the thought? Can you give us some imagery of what he was thinking before he answers so glibly?

In the spirit of help, I would tell a student that a dialogue like the OP offers should be at least three times longer. It is not yet fully imagined, or the author left out too much of what they did imagine. The result is timing that is too rapid, making it feel phony and rehearsed.

Consider a movie and the actors in it. They have memorized the script, they both could just exchange lines as quickly as possible and finish the scene in one minute instead of ten. But they take ten! This dialogue feels like they did the one minute version of a ten minute scene.

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