Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A writer recently mentioned that when she’d entered the Mills and Boon New Voices competition she was advised to “break up” the dialogue and wasn’t entirely sure what that meant so I thought it was the perfect moment for one of my occasional Ask the Author posts.

In the chapter on writing realistic dialogue in my Little Book of Writing Romance I explain that conversation in the real world is very different to that in a novel, or a film, or your favourite soap, for that matter. In the real world conversation often has little point to it. In a novel, however, it should have a purpose. It should advance the plot, move the story forward, tell us something about the characters who are speaking.

For the purpose of storytelling, you will need to cut out most of the small stuff. Obviously you want your conversations to sound natural, but your characters have to get to the point rather more quickly than we generally do in real life and, cut into the dialogue are the thoughts, feelings, the unspoken yearnings of the character.

In the following excerpt we have the perfect secretary, smoothing life at the office and, after yet another “nanny” crisis, in the home. This time, however, she comes prepared with a “lonely hearts” ad for him, informing him that his daughter is telling him that she wants is not a nanny, but a mother. She’s hoping that he’ll take the easy option. The one in front of him. When he bites, the dialogue to broken up by glimpses of her inner turmoil, reflected in her struggle with her hair. She’s been in love with him for two years and she’s putting herself on the line.

I could have written it like this —

‘Tell me, Jane, would you settle for a platonic marriage?’
‘Are you asking me?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want to know if you’d marry a man who wasn’t in love with you.’
‘No, Mark,’ she said. ‘Are you asking me if I’d marry you?’

In the context of the book, it’s still a strong, slightly shocking scene. But what are the characters doing while they are speaking? What are they feeling? This is a romance and I broke up the dialogue with emotion, feelings, the heroine challenging not just the hero, but herself. Does she have the courage to go through with her plan?

‘Tell me, Jane, would you settle for a platonic marriage?’
This was it. The opening she’d been waiting for. She swallowed. ‘Are you asking me?’ she replied, her voice perfectly calm even while her heart was pounding loud enough to be heard in the next county.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want to know if you’d marry a man who wasn’t in love with you.’
She shook her head. More hair slithered from the grip of pins unequal to the task. ‘No, Mark. That wasn’t my question.’ He frowned, and she very nearly lost her nerve. It wasn’t too late to bottle out…‘My question was…are you asking me if I’d marry you?’

Here, an exasperated lawyer, being led a merry dance by a runaway heiress and struggling with an very unwelcome attraction, attempts to understand her. The dialogue begins quickly, but slows down, punctuated by his, character revealing, thoughts. By her slightly evasive answers. We know more about both of them at the end of this conversation.

‘Tell me about Fairfax,’ he invited.
       Emmy regarded him suspiciously. ‘What do you want to know?’
       ‘How did you meet him?’
       ‘He came into Astons for a valuation.’
       ‘The auction house?’
       ‘Mmmm. I work there.’
       It hadn’t occurred to Brodie that Emerald Carlisle might actually have a job. ‘Was he buying, or selling?’ he asked.
       ‘The lease on his studio runs out soon and he needed…’ Too late she saw the trap he’d laid. ‘It’s not easy getting a loan when you’re an artist,’ she said, defensively.
       ‘That depends on how successful you are.’
       ‘He’s very talented. He will be successful. But for the moment ...’ She shrugged.
       ‘I can see that it might be difficult.’ He could also see why he might be keen to latch onto a gullible heiress. ‘And was it love at first sight?’
       There was the merest hesitation before she said, ‘What else?’
       Brodie glanced at the modest engagement ring she was wearing. It was oddly touching. ‘And now he’s in France waiting for you to join him. Are you going to tell me where?’
       She gave a little sigh. ‘I’ve already told you far too much.’

Use what you have to break up dialogue. Where are your characters? What is happening around them? What are they feeling? What are they afraid of? What are they hiding?

Quotations are from — The Perfect Proposal (The Engagement Effect); Eloping With Emmy

For more on writing romance, Liz Fielding's Little Book of Writing Romance is available wherever eBooks are sold.


PrincessFiona01 said...

I love the way you always have the perfect snippet to demonstrate exactly what your saying. I'm guessing you've written lots and lots of dialogue and other stuff

Liz Fielding said...

A fair bit, Fiona!

Julia Broadbooks said...

Wonderful examples. Thanks so much!

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I read your Brodie/Emmy passage -- as a reader -- with perfect delight. No problems. No need to reread anything. It was a fine reading experience.

But as a writer I can’t figure out the POV. Is it written in the omniscient POV?

“It hadn’t occurred to Brodie that Emerald Carlisle might actually have a job”. (his head?)

“Too late she saw the trap he’d laid.” (her head?)

It was oddly touching. (His head?)

“Emmy regarded him suspiciously” (His head? Her head? Narrator’s head?)

she said, defensively. (Her head, his head, narrator’s head?)

I detect some ‘evil’ adverbs, some ‘telling’ (OMG!), some head-hopping (!!!)…so how can it read so well? I consider it perfectly natural storytelling.

BTW: I’m no fan of ‘show, don’t tell’. After all, the author can only show what is going on inside a character by telling what is going on outside the character.


Liz Fielding said...

Hi Vince - I can see why you might think this, but in fact it's all in Brodie's viewpoint. We all suffered/suffer a little from copy-editors who don't believe readers can remember who is in a scene, and they frequently add names, jolting it out of deep-third.

He is thinking that she is regarding him suspiciously, noting the defensiveness, watching her fall into the trap. Touched by the cheap ring.

And I once heard the late great Charlotte Lambe say that Mills and Boon was "adverbial"; things have moved on since then. The writing is more modern in style, sharper.

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks, Julia!

Jennifer said...

Thanks Liz, this is such a good example of appropriately broken dialogue. I want to keep reading.

Diane Fordham said...

Hi Liz - so true about using dialogue to advance the plot. I completely enjoyed your examples. Thank you x

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