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.
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.
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