Why A Modern Fiction Writer Should Read Philosophical Dialogues

It's not likely that many of us spend much time reading Plato. But if you are serious about writing quality fiction, you should take the time to learn from great writers of philosophical dialogue. Here are three ways reading philosophical dialogue can improve your writing.

60 Second Philosophy

While it has gone out of vogue in recent centuries, philosophical dialogue was once a very popular genre within the realm of philosophy. Some famous examples of philosophical dialogues include The Republic by Plato and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley- you should read them! If you have little experience with this genre, you might be surprised to learn that they are almost all entirely fictional. As works of fiction, philosophical dialogues are replete with useful examples for modern day writers to incorporate into their own fiction.

What is a philosophical dialogue?


At its core, a philosophical dialogue is a written discussion between two or more individuals on matters of philosophy (philo- love / sophia- wisdom). These discussions can range in topics from love to politics to whether one should take pleasure in scratching an itch. But rather than just writing a long essay on these matters, authors of philosophical dialogues present them as an interplay between personalities. In Plato’s dialogues especially, the characters have their own personalities, objectives and backstories that influence the stance they take in the discussion.

Dialogues are unique in fiction in that the ideas take center stage. There is a plot in philosophical dialogue, but that plot is advanced though the development of ideas rather than the actions of the characters. Even so, philosophical dialogues are far from boring. Just to take a sampling from Plato’s work, they contain jokes, death threats, seductions, executions, jailbreaks and more.

Three Reasons to Study Philosophical Dialogue


First, the genre offers great insights into crafting a narrative with limited resources. The writer of dialogue cannot spend much page space expositing character, setting or movement. Still, these elements are critical and are interwoven winsomely in the speeches of the characters. Plato’s dialogues capture this phenomenon well. We learn about the person through the words they speak, and we interpret the words they speak through what we know about the person. This cycle of interpretation and character development is a worthy study for those seeking to improve their own writing.

Second, philosophical dialogue can help us understand plot in a new way. Most dialogues have a primary aim, much like the main arc of a novel. For Plato’s Republic, that aim is to define Justice. Throughout the dialogue, however, there are many other topics that arise for discussion. Take these as sub-plot points. The way a master writer like Plato weaves these sub-points into the dominant theme is something that we can emulate in our own writing. Each sub-plot arises naturally from discussion, as it would any of us have a conversation and get sidetracked. Each of these “distractions” inevitably makes its way back to the main idea and contributes to it in some helpful way.

Seeing the plot of a novel like a discussion can help us see the “off-ramps” and “on-ramps” of our main story arc more clearly.

Third, philosophical dialogues (or the good ones at least) have real-world implications; they are saying something important. The best fiction will always be that which is making an accurate statement about life. Studying philosophical dialogue is helpful because all fiction has an element of philosophy. All fiction is seeking to teach us something about life. We ought to learn as much as we can before we attempt to teach others. Engaging with philosophical dialogues is a great place to start.

My advice is to read (or better yet, listen to) a philosophical dialogue. Perhaps doing so will inspire you as you craft your next novel or short story. Even better, perhaps you will find yourself wanting to write a dialogue of your own! If you would like some recommendations, shoot me a message; I love talking about this sort of thing.

For more information, check out another article I wrote on this topic.

11 Comments

Szabot

I love this!

I’d recommend every dialogue by Plato, but especially Apology and Crito for writers. I cannot read them without being moved.

Another great one is Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

May-10 at 00:56

1910orange

Such philosophical dialogues are not unique to European or Greco-Roman traditions.

I usually read philosophical exchanges of classic Zen Buddhist or Mahayana traditions. Some of these can be found in sutras too.

May-10 at 00:58

Clintone

I suspect I’ll have a rather unpopular opinion of this topic…but I hate reading philosophical dialogues. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more unpleasant, inefficient way of learning. 95% of the time when I read these things, I already know everything stated.

I like writing my own philosophical dialogues. I think that how philosophy works best is as informally as possible - just reckless, foolish individuals talking to each other as honestly and shamelessly as possible. The most important thing is to get everything out of your head, especially the controversial stuff you feel hesitant about stating. Have some vague stream of thoughts that you’re not even sure is coherent? Wonderful! Belch forth your ignorance on an intelligent discussion forum and people will tell you whether or not it makes sense.

I think that’s so much more efficient and a better way to get feedback than reading. During the time I could spend reading Plato, I could spend reading the views of some modern sociologist or psychologist, who, probably, almost no one else has looked at the views of before, and I’ll learn new things in every paragraph.

Now, I love thinking about philosophy at talking about it. I don’t think philosophers hardly ever talk about anything significant though. There are tons of science fiction concepts, on the other hand, that aren’t discussed by philosophers because nobody even thought about them before about fifty years ago. I think it’s the modern thinkers, and the forward thinkers who are most important to add to the vies of…or I would think that, if they even existed. They nearly don’t. The only exceptions I know of is content like Isaac Asimov’s views and some of the thought experiments in Star Trek. There are a ton of philosophical conundrums people could tap into that they never do.

May-10 at 09:59

1910orange

I don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion. That is very much how we converse. recklessly, bluntly, yet there is something philosophical about it. Making the esoteric easy to understand is a sign that we are learning to apply its concepts.

As for views of modern psychologist or sociologist, comparing their views with philosophers from the past often yield fascinating epiphanies. Some of them are talking about similar things, but the difference in time and culture shows in how they express these concepts. In others, they may disagree fundamentally due in part to how times have changed,

To me thinkers of both the old and new are both sources of wisdom. I don’t think one is more important than the other.

May-10 at 10:27

Giglio

Excellent post, Bob, and loaded with wisdom. The naysayers probably have not spent time with the ancients. Much of what we believe to be original or read as original is owed to the Greek philosophers. Reading them can be a challenge, but credit should be misplaced.

Plato, Socrates, and Aristophanes were primary sources for me on the subject of love, the fruit of which became a contemporary story involving at least one actor who neglected his lessons and paid a price.

The application to storytelling is dead-on. Kudos.

Thanks for the blog!

G

May-13 at 19:14

Timark

will they help write the dialogue of a Khmer crack ho?

Somehow I doubt it.

Maybe i should chore through Ulysses also?

May-13 at 19:27

Jimvread

95% of the time when I read these things, I already know everything stated.

Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.
-Vizzini (when death was on the line)

May-13 at 23:35

1910orange

Just to expand your repertoire, you can take a look at the relation between destiny and affinity when it comes to love and relationships. This is central to Chinese culture who view bonds between people as transcending lifetimes.

May-14 at 02:04

1910orange

Yes it will.

Many a times people stick close to their belief system and philosophies. Their drivel or soliloquy, while crude, can sometimes be traced back to some philosophical values passed down through generations.

If the Khmer is a Buddhist, he may rant about how there may be comeuppance for what he did, but until then, he wants to enjoy life first. However, while doing so, he may curse his fate and hope the young ones in the group don’t follow in his footsteps.

May-14 at 02:17

Timark

and do i need to read philosphical dialogues for this? or do i absorb this information by osmosis from the society of the characater?

i suggest its the latter. and that these philosphical dialogues have been repeated so many times through society and literature that i do not need to read them directly. They are all around me.

have a nice weekend!

May-14 at 02:18

1910orange

Philosophy is the study of human nature and life. How you best learn it and gain wisdom differs. Some like to study the theories and perceive the world through its lenses, others prefer to experience the world themselves and perceive the world through their subjective experiences.

There is no right or wrong, but as the saying in Chinese goes: there is no end to learning. Reading up is never a bad thing. For instance, How societies view hedonism has changed over the years, and to know its roots, it may be wise to take a peek on how different philosophers think about it 2500 years ago.

For me, I read both philosophical dialogues, study religions, and observe and experience the world. I don’t want to form judgements yet.

May-14 at 02:24
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