In my post The Importance of Writing Dialogue I note that dialogue is an important, if not the most important, way to build character. The words, phrases, whole paragraphs, mere grunts, or even silences that come out (or don’t come out) of your character’s mouth are the psychological and emotional fingerprints of your character. In a romance, dialogue is an important, if not the most important, facet of building the love relationship between the hero and heroine.
1) Know the emotional center of your character.
Know how this character makes sense of the world. Then make sure the words that come out of this character’s mouth align with this center and sense.
If your character is a confident, socially adept sort, then her utterances will match her confidence and ease in every social situation. Let’s call her Joan.
If your character has a chip on his shoulder and has always had to make his way in the world, then his utterances will be consistently pugnacious and challenging. Let’s call him Mack.
Joan and Mack express their emotional centers and their sense of themselves through what they think, do, and say.
If their paths first intersect on neutral territory, say outside a coffee house, they are going to behave in character, no matter how attracted – or repulsed – they are by one another.
Joan is not going to behave rudely if Mack enters ahead of her and lets the door close on her face (although she will certainly have an opinion about his rudeness).
Mack isn’t going to suddenly develop manners just because Joan is an attractive woman who happens to have her hands full at that moment (although he might having a passing thought for ‘nice tits’).
The reader needs to see characters speak and behave in character before they start to develop and/or change as a result of the events of the story.
Technique: Listen to your characters before beginning a story. Get them to talk to you or another character.
I’m in the midst of writing a short story “Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening.” Before I began writing I heard parts of the first scene. The main character, Max (Lord Blackwell) was smooth talking his way into getting what he wanted. It was clear to me: this guy is manipulative. However, I don’t use the word ‘manipulative’ to describe him. I don’t need to.
2) Know the chemistry between the two people engaged in the dialogue.
In the case of Joan and Mack, their chemistry is not solely determined by their emotional centers. They both have fears and goals and obstacles.
Joan lost her accounting job a couple months ago as a result of a global merger. She hasn’t (yet) lost her self-confidence, but she does need another job quickly because she went all in on a condo and risks losing a lot if the bank forecloses.
Mack is coming to the painful realization that his beloved older brother has been lying to him for years about his addiction and now needs to go into rehab. The chemistry between Joan and Mack will be colored by how they relate to their own and each other’s problems.
Technique: Imagine a scene that encapsulates the very essence of the relationship you see for your two characters.
I am sometimes compelled to write a novel because I have a particular scene in mind I want to write for a hero and heroine. I mentally place that scene mid-story. Then I imagine the initial conditions that would lead to such a scene. After that I follow the logical consequences of what I have set up.
In the case of my short story, I have a scene I intensely want to bring to the page, namely the moment of Max’s rude awakening. Because I do not see the story longer than 100 pages, this scene will come near the end.
I am currently exploring Max’s psyche and behavior, and I am nearing the moment when he will confront the unpleasant consequences of his manipulative ways.
I have paired Max with Diana, a woman of no particular beauty or arts, who is the unwitting instrument of his awakening. She comes to realize Max married her so he could push his responsibilities onto her. How does she bring him to a stunning new sense of himself? I am currently figuring it out – and having a grand time doing so.
3) Know your story in order to determine the proportion of dialogue to narration.
Is Joan and Mack’s story a comedy, a psychological thriller, or what? If it’s a comedy, it’s likely to have lots of dialogue. If it’s a psychological thriller, then the action will revolve less around the dialogue and more around the creation of spine-tingling, bone-chilling goings-on.
Technique: Imagine what other art form your story could be. I imagined my Regency novel The Temporary Bride (affiliate) as a 3-act play, where most of the action occurs on one main set in a series of scenes. It is necessarily dialogue-intense.
“Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening” is a psychological portrait, neither a miniature nor a huge canvas, so Max’s interior world is of importance. The portrait mostly comes to life in relationship to Diana, so he is revealed through his conversations and physical relationship with Diana, as well as his thoughts about her. Diana is a deserving character, and her psychological unveiling will come in the wake of Max’s rude awakening.
Stay tuned: Julie’s new short story, “Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening”, will be released on this blog beginning in two weeks!
This post was written by Julie Andresen