62. Dynamic dispatch#

In the last chapter we established that the compile-time type of a variable determines what operations you can perform on the variable in your code, whereas the run-time type determines what actual operations occur when your code is executed. We said that you loose the ability to perform subtype specific operations when treating the subtype as a supertype, but that you gain the ability to write code that works for all subtypes at the same time. Let’s talk about that benefit.

Why would it matter that we can treat cats and dogs as animals instead of as cats and dogs? Or rectangles and triangles as shapes rather than their respective shapes? What do we gain from treating these subtypes as the same supertype? The answer is that we gain the ability to do dynamic dispatch.


The compile-time type of a variable determines what operations you can perform on the variable in your code, whereas the run-time type determines what actual operations occur when your code is executed.

Dynamic dispatch is a fundamental concept in subtype polymorphism. The term ‘dynamic dispatch’ may sound daunting, but it simply refers to the technique of selecting which implementation of a polymorphic operation (method or property) to call at run-time. It’s ‘dynamic’ because the decision is made at run-time, and it’s a ‘dispatch’ because the run-time environment dispatches the method call to the correct method implementation.

Key point

Dynamic dispatch is the process by which a call to an interface method (or overridden method) is resolved at run-time, allowing different implementations of a method to be executed depending on the actual type of the object.


Fig. 62.1 Like a turntable changing tunes with different records, dynamic dispatch shifts behavior based on the type of the object it’s interacting with during run-time.#

Think of a machine that is designed to throw balls. It doesn’t matter what kind of ball you put into it: a baseball, a tennis ball, a golf ball. The machine doesn’t need to know about the specific type of ball, it just needs to be a ball that it can throw. This is the core concept behind dynamic dispatch: methods can be called based on the run-time type of an object, not its compile-time type.

Let’s imagine a vending machine that can dispense different kinds of healthy snacks. In programming terms, we have an ISnack interface and different classes like Apple and Banana that implement this interface. Here’s what it might look like:

public interface ISnack
    string Name { get; }
    double Price { get; }
public class Apple : ISnack
    public string Name => "Apple";
    public double Price => 1.5;
public class Banana : ISnack
    public string Name => "Banana";
    public double Price => 1.0;

Let’s say that the VendingMachine class uses the ISnack interface in a method called Dispense. You pass an argument to the method stating how many items you want, and it tells you how much you must pay.

public class VendingMachine
    private ISnack snack;

    public VendingMachine(ISnack snack)
        => this.snack = snack;

    public void Dispense(int quantity)
        double totalCost = snack.Price * quantity;
        Console.WriteLine($"You have to pay {totalCost} BTC for {quantity} {snack.Name}s.");

Using the VendingMachine class might look like this:

VendingMachine appleMachine = new VendingMachine(new Apple());
VendingMachine bananaMachine = new VendingMachine(new Banana());

You have to pay 3 BTC for 2 Apples.
You have to pay 2 BTC for 2 Bananas.

In this example, the Dispense method takes an integer parameter representing the quantity of snacks the user wants. It then calculates the total cost for the requested quantity, based on the price of the specific snack stocked in the vending machine. This information is then displayed. The type of snack, which affects the cost calculation, is established at run-time when we create instances of the VendingMachine with different ISnack implementations (Apple or Banana). The cost calculation is not established at compile-time.

This is a demonstration of dynamic dispatch in action: the specific implementation of ISnack isn’t known until run-time, but we can still interact with them polymorphically via the ISnack interface. Despite having a single Dispense method, different messages can be output depending on the specific type of snack, offering a clear picture of how subtype polymorphism and dynamic dispatch work together. This is what we mean when we say that we are ‘treating’ a subtype as a supertype.


The example does not fully illustrate the power of dynamic dispatch and subtype polymorphism. The difference between the Apple and Banana classes is primarily in the data they store (their price), not in their behavior.

The true strength of dynamic dispatch and subtype polymorphism shines when different subtypes vary in their behavior — that is, when they have different implementations of the same method. This allows you to write code that operates on a superclass or interface, but which executes different behavior depending on the run-time type of the object.

In future chapters, we will explore examples where subtypes have significantly different behaviors. Remember, the objective here is not just to structure data, but to structure behavior.


Before leaving the section on dynamic dispatch it should be mentioned that languages that implement dynamic dispatch by means of subtype polymorphism usually provide us with single dynamic dispatch. This means that the implementation that is executed depends on the run-time type of one variable. We will learn about multiple dynamic dispatch in the chapters on visitor pattern and pattern matching.