Is it acceptable to write dialogue in a book in screenplay format? (writing the name of the speaker and a colon, followed by the text)

3 Answers 3


There are no rules; you can do anything you want, providing it works. If you can make it work, then do it.

There are precedents for doing what you want to do. In "Gödel, Escher, and Bach," a non-fiction book, there are dialogues between fictional characters illustrating specific philosophic points. And they are rendered like a screenplay and not as Achilles said this, and the Tortoise said that. No action beats, as I recall. Minimal setting detail.

Representing the dialogue in an epistolary form seems like one solution. It could be a transcript of an interview, a wiretap, or a deposition. Throwing in annotations like or can add to the verisimilitude.

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    James Joyce and Alfred Bester are other novelists who have also used it in parts of novels. Presumably for specific reasons.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:06

In current popular and literary fiction that is uncommon and readers will be irritated unless there is a reason for that formatting that explains it to the readers, e.g. that kind of dialoge represents instant messages or radio messages or voices from a tv screen.

Literary conventions are there for a reason: They make reading (and writing) easier. Unless you write experimental literature there should be a good reason to deviate from conventions.


Personally I find this boring, it is "talking heads", and will get you rejected pretty quickly.

It works in screenplays because it is the job of directors and actors (and special effect) to add all the stunning backgrounds, to literally show (don't tell) the emotions the characters feel during the scene. We don't need it in prose because it is on the screen. The screenplay author can give the roughest two line exposition of the setting (third floor of a decrepit old building), and other people will bring that image to life, with a hundred details.

In a written story, it is the job of the author to build the imagery up, and sustain it, for the reader. Reading is a visual experience, the writing has to help the reader create the setting in their head, the expressions, actions and emotions, the tones of voice.

The reader is not going to just infer all of that.

In a written story, if you don't sustain the imagery and sensory and emotional details, the reader gets bored, and stops turning pages. They "fall out" of the story, their suspension of disbelief falters and fails.

So, no. Don't do that. Beginning writers often want to do this "talking heads" scene to explain their philosophy (an expert talking to a novice), or explain the plot or to tell all about their character.

And this falls flat. It doesn't work, because readers can't remember a laundry list of facts. They remember the visual+auditory+sensory scenes. The picture of the rage that led to the murder.

What you want to do is not commercially viable as a written story. Readers don't like it. They get bored with it.

Stories need to be visual, constantly creating scenes. More generally, they need to be sensory, with sounds, smells, tactile senses.

If what you want to write is a screenplay, with the collaboration of directors, actors and special effects people to carry the story, learn to do that. It is a harder field to break into, but not impossible.

If you want to write novels, you need to learn to invent, describe and sustain scenes that help the reader visualize a virtual reality experience in their head. The maxim "Show, Don't Tell" still applies, in print.

That's the way to write a story. In print, this is the meaning of "Show, Don't Tell."

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    +1 for "this is boring and -1 for the overemphasis of "show don't tell". That maxim is largely misunderstood and widely misapplied. Many of the most beloved classics and many of the most successful bestsellers 'tell' much of the narrative. I mean, what's wrong with "John lived on the third floor"? Do you really have to show him trudging up the stairs and traversing two landings? That is boring. Unless you show it to show something else – how tired John is, how boring his life is, who lives below him. 'Showing' has to have a purpose. But telling can have a purpose, too.
    – Ben
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:02
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    @user482877 You don't understand what it means. It originated in stage plays; the idea is you never tell the audience that Bob is a chain smoker, you just show Bob smoking in every scene. Everything you Tell becomes something readers have to memorize. If it matters, you show it. So yes, if it matters in the plot that John lives on the 3rd floor, then show it, at least once, because you can bet readers will forget within a few pages that detail you did not show but expected them to memorize. It's the author's job to imagine a way to make that showing entertaining and not boring.
    – Amadeus
    Sep 19, 2023 at 19:30
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    I agree with your comment, but your answer pertains to the formatting of dialogue, and dialogue does not necessarily require to be embedded in narration. There are passages where what the speakers say is given without any description of what they do or look like for several turns, if it is clear who is speaking. This is neither boring nor bad writing, but rather common. And dialogue is showing! Telling dialogue would be a summarizing paraphrase by the author. The formatting of the dialogue has no bearing on whether you are showing or telling: John: Yes. == "Yes", John said.
    – Ben
    Sep 19, 2023 at 22:02
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    @user482877 Dialogue is not always showing. Using a one page speech of "dialogue" to fill in backstory is still telling, it isn't showing anything. Dialogue is supposed to be action, not a cheap way to disguise exposition, prologue, or history, or whatever. Bad or misplaced dialogue is very much "telling" when one should be "showing".
    – Amadeus
    Sep 20, 2023 at 13:38
  • Again, I agree.
    – Ben
    Sep 20, 2023 at 15:01

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