Most say that the plot of a story needs action. This is certainly true. Obviously.
Yet, I’ve heard complaints. “There’s too much dialogue, not enough action.” “Nothing happens in this story, they just talk.” These complaints baffle me. Dialogue IS action.
Action normally furthers a conflict. Physical action, for example, cannot occur without conflict. Perhaps the conflict is that a person is late to work. Maybe they have a physical barrier to overcome, a test. Or, in the case of a fight, battle, or war, there is obviously conflict. Physical action, which by necessity accompanies conflict, services the plot.
What about dialogue? Is it filler? Of course not. Conflicts can get even more interesting if centered around dialogue. A simple case would be an argument, or an attempt to persuade someone. These are straightforward. Sometimes the characters of a story have to plan, and they do this through dialogue as well. Dialogue can service conflict just as well as physical action. However…
In both cases, in action and in dialogue, brilliance can come from subtlety. I’ve seen it. Many shows have action or dialogue that “doesn’t matter.” It’s easier to forgive the explosions that accompany “pointless” action, but when two characters talk for five to ten minutes about whatever comes to mind, all forgiveness is gone, right? Who would want to listen to a silly conversation?
Ah, but here comes the subtlety thing I was talking about. If there is a conflict in the action or dialogue, but it is hidden, then the act may seem pointless, but we are actually gaining something. I’ve seen a show (which will go unnamed here) where two characters just talked and played a silly game for an entire episode. This game and conversation had nothing to do with the plot. Yet, if you watch closely, that conversation actually became a pivoting point in their relationship. It was a magnificent bit of writing. The same show had many such episodes, leading some people to ignre it as a collection of silly conversations. Yet, if the reader was looking for character-driven plot, they found it there.
Nothing has to be pointless. Action takes many forms, and as long as they advance the plot or characters, nothing is lost.
I have read a few books where the main character is mostly alone and not much talking occurs. Castaway-style books are usually a good example. Even when they do talk, it’s usually to themselves, and thus not a dialogue. These are good books.
I have also read some books (mostly foreign ones) that rely almost solely on dialogue. They sometimes don’t even bother describing the place that the characters are in, only what they are doing. (Yeah, they might say that the character is on the street at night, but that’s hardly a description. Furthermore, even that could be gleaned from the dialogue.) These stories are usually very focused on character and character development, and don’t work if your characters are not distinct, multilayered, well-defined, and entertaining. These also can be good books.
In my opinion, less dialogue creates stories that are more situation-driven. More dialogue creates more character driven stories.
No right or wrong answer. Do what works for you. I’m experimenting myself.
If you want to experience some dialogue centric stories, I suggest starting with the movie/play, 12 Angry Men. Any book by Japansese author NISIOISIN is a good read for this type of thing. But even if these things don’t seem interesting, I suggest looking at the stories you have experienced. You might be surprised by how much of the plot runs on dialogue, with little physical action to back it up.
Oh, and for the other type of book, read Hatchet or something. Whatever.
See you around!