I’ve heard that many authors and agents will go straight to the dialogue when they first look at sample chapters presented to them. If the dialogue doesn’t pass the test, then you’re out of luck.
So it was with great anticipation that I came to Gail Gaymer Martin’s chapter on Writing Believable Dialogue in her book, Writing the Christian Romance. There is much to be gained from reading this chapter directly, so I’m afraid I won’t be able to do this chapter justice in these study notes. Gail Gaymer Martin uses wonderful dialogue samples extensively in this chapter to show just how good dialogue is written. In the interest of keeping this blog post to a reasonable size I’ll do my best to highlight the key factors in writing good dialogue, but I will not be offering examples like you will find in Writing the Christian Romance.
Dialogue in any fiction must have a purpose. Keep that always in mind when you sketch out your dialogue portions. If need be, use tight narrative to smooth the transition into the dialogue segment of the scene. Strip out the niceties, greetings, garb-a-lee-goop, and head straight into the meat of the conversation when delivering dialogue. Consider your reader’s time as precious and thus get straight to the point, they’ll be thankful for it and will be more likely to become repeat customers if you don’t waste their time with what they can assume has already transpired in the course of the conversation.
Gail Gaymer Martin offers four basic purposes of dialogue in Writing the Christian Romance.
# 1: To move the story forward.
# 2: To introduce goals and motivation, thus advancing the conflict.
# 3: To set the mood of the scene or establish a theme.
# 4: To reveal character.
After you write your dialogue portion of a scene go back over it and ask yourself if that transaction of dialogue advanced the plot, provided new information, or defined your characters more. If it had a purpose, was interesting to read, and didn’t turn out to be just mindless filler, then you’ve got something worth keeping. If, however, portions of that transaction doesn’t help the reader understand your story or the characters better, then you need to do some further editing to make your dialogue shine.
Dialogue in fiction isn’t meant to be like real life conversations as a whole. You must take the best, the most informative part of real life conversations and put only that part on the page to keep the reader’s interest. And in so doing you need to somehow show the speaker’s personality through their words and actions as well. Knowing your characters, their education level, their profession, their upbringing, etc. is important to depict your character accurately through their dialogue. A doctor would likely choose very different words to describe a certain event than what a mentally handicapped person, who often finds himself struggling to formulate sentences, would say about the exact same event. Be the character speaking as you create his/her dialogue to reveal their personality through their choice of words, the tone they deliver their words in, the actions they incorporate with their speech (disclosed through action beats), etc. The more you can define one character’s speech from another’s, the more the reader will gain from the dialogue segments and the less dialogue tags (he said/she said to define who is speaking) you will need to use.
If you can strip your dialogue sections of action beats, dialogue tags, introspection and narrative and you still present a compelling segment of dialogue that moves your story forward in one way or more (ie. providing important, intriguing information, revealing important characterization, presenting emotion) then you’ve written good dialogue.
A while ago I noticed that when time was of the essence and I just had to get through a given number of chapters of a fiction novel I was reading, I resorted to speed reading. I focused in on the dialogue of the scenes mostly. I was amazed at the amount of information, emotions, and characterization that could be gained solely from reading between quotes. Now I know why. Those particular authors wrote believable and valuable dialogue.
Introspection, action beats, and narrative enhance the dialogue, but the dialogue itself should be able to stand alone and still reveal the just of the story.
One more note that I want to mention in this very condensed summary of Gail Gaymer Martin’s chapter on dialogue, is the use of subtext in dialogue. Subtext is what is implied by our words or the true meaning that might be hidden beneath the actual words spoken. Subtext is often used to avoid making hurtful statements or to tease or to get a point across indirectly. The one speaking is counting on the person listening to understand his or her indirect meaning or hidden message in many cases.
Using subtext is a great way to subtly reveal flirtation and to build romantic tension in Christian romance. It’s also fun to read if written well, but careful consideration must be given first to helping the reader understand and know the character well enough that they can pick up on the character’s use of subtext in a scene when it occurs. It won’t do if only the author is capable of seeing the true meaning of a character’s words. So be sure to set the scene and the character’s personality up enough for the reader to be able to comprehend the true meaning behind the subtext dialogue or it will lose all effect and probably cause confusion more than anything and you don’t want your readers confused. Confusion often causes a person to feel stupid, and no reader wants to feel that when they are supposed to be entertained, not alienated.
So this concludes week two of the study of Gail Gaymer Martin’s Writing the Christian Romance. Next week we’ll take a look at the final three chapters in Writing the Christian Romance. On Monday we’ll visit the topic of introspection, Tuesday we’ll take a look at plotting and then we’ll finish off this study on Wednesday with some direction on how to sell your novel. So lots to learn yet, but I have to say, I’ve learned much so far, too! This book is a true reference manual for writers and I’m glad I got my hands on a copy of it. If you are interested in picking up a copy yourself, here is the link to Amazon.com’s listing of Writing the Christian Romance.
Tomorrow I’ll be sharing my Authors-Helping-Writers Interview featuring the debut author of Searching for Spice, Megan DiMaria. She shares her road-to-publication story and an innovative method of writing in her interview. I hope you’ll stop by and see what she has to share.