Article of the Month

Dialogue – Action and Interaction
c. 2004 by Alicia Rasley



 "Hello.  How are you?"

 "I'm fine. How are you?"

 "Just great, thanks.  Nice day we're having, huh?"

You bored yet?  I am, and I'm the one who wrote those exciting lines of dialogue.

 We say a lot of meaningless things to each other during the course of a day. But that doesn't mean we should put them in a book.  Dialogue, like everything else in the story, should cause things to happen.  A conversation, an overheard whisper, a ringing declaration, can make the plot go into a new direction.  And striving for this can just about instantly vitalize your dialogue by making it more than just clever conversation. It will be... action.

 Instead of that boring, inactive opening, try these conversation-starters:

 "Hey!  I was just dreaming about you! Wow!"

 "Where the heck have you been? I've been looking all over for you!"

 "Come over here, young lady.  I have something to show you."

 Imagine how the character has to respond to each of those provocative openings– not with a pro-forma "I'm fine".  Each of these leads to a question, or a protest, or an emotion– or all three.  They open up the conversation to some action and reaction.

 In a romance novel, it's especially important to make dialogue active.  Conversation between the hero and the heroine should increase both their conflict and connection.  They come to know each other's values and deceptions and qualities through their interaction, and how they address each other and what they say will be a major part of that interaction. So don't waste dialogue scenes. Make them matter, and make them meaningful.

 So what is action?  I'm using John Barnes's definition here.  He's a theater historian, so he's used to plays, where dialogue is all-important.
ACTION: Any irreversible event that changes the course of events course of events of the story. Key words: IRREVERSIBLE —   CHANGES

 So if hero speaks his confession into a mini-tape-recorder, then instead of hitting playback, he rewinds and records over it: No go. That’s not action because it’s reversible.

 But if the heroine is hiding under the bed. and hears him dictating, he can rewind all he likes, but she still knows the truth, and will now be able to act on it. That’s irreversible dialogue.  Anything spoken aloud and heard by someone else is irreversible.  But that does mean anything he says to himself doesn't count.  Introspection is well and good, but he can always take it back. His thoughts have to be heard to be irreversible.

 Harder, really, is making sure that dialogue has an effect, that it changes something. How can you accomplish that? First, start by deciding that you’re not going to have long stretches of dialogue that just displays how funny this guy is. or how well they get along, or passes on to the reader some necessary information.  All that is fine, but think how the conversation will crackle when the reader realizes that this moment of conversation is going to change something.

 What sort of change can a conversation bring?

 First, there’s the exchange of information. Note that this exchange means between characters, not between the author and the reader. Any quote starting. “As you know, Michael, in my childhood...” means that both speaker and listener already have this info, so nothing in the story will change because of the exchange.  Rather make the information exchange important to the romance or the external plot, so the conversation provides a jolt of forward progress.

 Information exchange doesn’t have to be telling, by the way.  It’s actually more fun if one has to tease it out of the other, or the speaker accidentally lets it drop, or it’s the result of a tough interrogation.  Like every other kind of action, dialogue is more interesting with a bit of conflict in there. “I can’t tell you!" “You have to tell me!"  Go back to the character here.  Would she tell this without prompting? Or does she need torture to come clean?  Let the conversation provide whatever incentive is needed for the character to tell what the other needs to know.

   Especially in a comedy, making information exchange a conversation of conflict can provide a bit of humor.

 "Jane, do let me put my bonnet up.  I have been out all day looking for your bir–" Lucy stopped and clapped her hand over her wayward mouth.

 "My bir– my birthday gift?  Oh, Aunt Lucy! What? What did you get me?"

 "Your birthday isn't for three days."

 "Oh, tell me now!  Tell me!" Jane put her little hands to her heart.  "I promise to be good!"

 How long does the heroine hold out before she tells what the gift is? Now there's bound to be an information exchange, but it isn't just a quick spill– there's conflict, and character revelation, and lots of whining before she imparts the important fact.

 What's important is that the story changes somehow because one character has passed on some information to the other.  So make something happen as a result of this exchange.  The niece insists on going to the stable to see the birthday horse, and there she meets the young Mr. Ferguson, nephew of the best friend of Lucy's late husband.

 Discovery is another form of information exchange, but instead of just passing on what one already knows, it results in a revelation of something neither speaker knew.  Talking together helps them put together pieces of a puzzle.
 “The stablemaster writes to say Jane didn’t attend her riding lesson today,” Lucy said, staring at the note as trepidation filled her.
 Captain Ferguson frowned. "You know, that must have been your Jane I saw in my nephew's curricle! I thought it looked like her, but I assumed you had her well-chaperoned–"
 “They are courting!”

 Discovery requires that both contribute some essential fact, and the sum is a new piece of information.  The conversation is active because, without this particular sharing of facts, the truth would never come out.  This use of dialogue is especially good when you want both to participate in the discovery of some event or clue.  It gives them a way to cooperate, to produce something together, and in a romance can subtly show how well they're suited.

 A conversation can also result in an alliance of interests. It's most fun if the conversation leads them to realize they need to work together, especially if that's a frightening prospect.
 "I don't care what you say, Captain Ferguson."  Lucy looked implacably at him. "My sister sent Jane to me so that her daughter can marry well. And I regret to say that a penniless young lieutenant isn't going to suit."

 "You think I want my nephew shackling himself to some twittery little snob?"

 "My niece is not–" Lucy stopped and listened to the echo of his words. Then, slowly, she said, "You don't want this marriage either?"

 It's best that they start out somewhat at odds, so the conversation brings them to alliance.  Thus, in the course of the dialogue scene, they move from adversaries to reluctant allies.

 Sometimes when two people realize they have a common interest, they end up conspiring together. This involves agreeing tacitly or openly to work together more or less in secret.  So the concerned aunt and uncle above might agree to work to stop the wedding. They're creating a shared goal and a plan to achieve it.  Take the conversation further if you can.  A plan requires action, so as they're arguing and negotiating the steps involved in stopping the wedding, you'll be showing them learning to work together– and where they're in conflict.

 "I remember when I was nineteen," Captain Ferguson observed, as if it was a century ago and not just a decade.  "I would never have let a relative tell me whom I could court."

 Lucy sighed.  "Jane is just that way. She thrives on opposition.  A very dear girl, but..." She glanced over and could see that Captain Ferguson was struggling manfully not to say that this must be a family trait.  She said, "They are counting on us to object, aren't they?  So why don't we ... surprise them?"

 "You mean, pretend that we are in favor of the match?" Captain Ferguson frowned in thought.  "Well, I can't think of anything more likely to make Joseph think twice than my telling him that Jane is a perfect wife."

 Lucy said decisively, "Let's then.  Let's take every opportunity to throw them together."

 "Do you attend the Haversham musicale tomorrow night?  We can insist they sit together.  With both of us nearby, of course, so as not to excite their suspicions."

 Conspiracies lead to joint action.  Use this conversation to set up regular meetings between them, for example, where they have to act together to further their shared goal.  Secrecy only adds to the fun of their meetings.

 But maybe your hero and heroine are getting along way too well, especially if they're conspiring.  Well, bring on a conversation that leads to greater conflict.  But don't make it trivial.  Oh, the surface-level topic might be trivial, but see if you can make their responses reflect some internal conflicts.

 Lucy declared, "Everyone in my family gets married at St. George's."

 "Since we plan that they won't actually get wedded, what difference does it make? It will be easier to set the wedding outside London– easier to cancel it, that is, with the least fanfare."

 "Jane will think I disapprove if I set the ceremony anywhere but St. George's."

 He regarded her with narrowed eyes.  "Your wedding was in St. George's, I seem to recall."  He added, "It rained. All day."

 "This is England, Captain Ferguson," she said coldly. "It frequently rains here, and not just outside of St. George's.  If you hadn't left in the middle of the ceremony, you would have seen that we made a game of it, leaving the church under our umbrellas."

 "A game. Yes. I've observed that you considered marriage itself a game, Mrs. Endicott."

 She gasped, but he was going on as if he cared not that he had just impugned her virtue.  "No St. George's.  I will not hear of it.  I will not have my nephew even consider marrying in the place where you married my poor dead fool of a best friend!"

 Again, aim for some change in their relationship.  They start out thinking they can clear this little problem up, but find that actually, the more they talk, the more at odds they are– and it will be especially interesting if it reveals why they are really in conflict.

 Conflict is the fuel that powers the plot, but you can't have them always fighting, or the reader will start to suspect these two aren't really meant to be together.  If they have been at odds, then a conversation can lead to some kind of truce, reluctant or not. Again, there must be change from the state in the beginning of the conversation to another state at the end.

 "Gretna Green?" Lucy whispered.  "They've eloped?"

 "Damnation.  They've got a two-hour head start on me."

 Lucy grabbed up her bonnet.  "I'm going too."

 "Nonsense," he said.  He couldn't imagine even a few hours alone with Lucy. They would do nothing but argue, and every angry word would put new scars in his heart.

 "Let me go along," she said. "It might spare Jane's reputation if I'm there to bring her home."

 He stood irresolute, his hand on the door. Finally he muttered, "We will do them no good if we show up fighting like Napoleon's artillery against Wellington's cavalry."

 She smiled suddenly, sadly.  "I promise to be civil to you.  If you promise to be civil back."

 "Oh, all right."

 "Let's take your phaeton. It will be faster."

 A treaty should lead to some shared decision– taking his phaeton, for example– to show that their cooperation is not just talk.

 Remember that the act of lying is. in itself, irreversible. That is, once it's done, it's very hard to take back, and the resulting mess of admitting to the lie or being caught in it can be extreme. So if one character is deceiving the other, see if you can make him lie directly in conversation.
Speaking it aloud makes him commit more to the deception because he cannot take it back now.  But make sure the deception has an effect on the plot. For example, she relies on what he has told her to make a decision or take an action, or, alternatively, she recognizes it as a lie, and his deception destroys her trust in him.  Or she challenges him and forces him to tell her the truth.

 "You never told me about when John died."  She looked grimly at the road ahead. "I should know. I am his widow."

 Captain Ferguson's fists closed more tightly on the reins.  "You saw the commendation. He died a hero."

 "Yes. That's what the commendation said.  That he died saving someone.  But you were there. Whom did he save?"

 He recalled John protecting his Portuguese mistress with his body as the grenade exploded nearby.  "He saved me."

 "That is very gallant, Captain.  Untrue, but gallant."  Lucy turned her merciless gaze on him. "Tell me why you are lying."

  Just keep in mind that a lie will almost always be revealed as a lie, sooner or later.  As President Nixon said (and boy, did he know!), it's not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble.  The very fact that one character lied to the other, even with the best of motives, should create conflict – within the liar while it's still secret, and within the relationship when it's revealed.  The revelation of the lie will manifest issues with trust and honor that might have been buried for years.  So if there's a lie, have it revealed early enough that there is time for them to work through its consequences.

 You can’t take back telling the truth either.  So a conversation where a long-hidden truth is revealed will lead to real change.  Just remember to set this up earlier, whether it involves alluding to a secret or posing a question, such as why Captain Ferguson stalked out of his best friend's wedding.

 They gazed at the sign welcoming them to Gretna Green, Scotland's most famous elopement destination. "So Jane and Charlie now hate each other and refuse to speak, much less marry."

 Lucy sighed.  "I almost started believing in love at first sight again, imagining them wed.  But–"

 "But now, you are made a cynic all over again." He smiled down at her. "And we have that damnable church reserved." Suddenly he took her in his arms.  "What do you say, Mrs. Endicott? Shall we make use of the reservation ourselves?"

 Lucy opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she pressed her cheek against his chest and whispered, "A wedding? You? And I?"

 "I haven't been, I suppose, entirely honest with you."

 "I know about John's mistress," she said.

 "I don't mean that.  I mean– oh, hang it all, Lucy.  I love you. I've loved you all along. I walked out of St. George's that day because I couldn't bear to see you marrying anyone else, especially my best friend."

 "Oh."  She took a deep breath as she felt his heartbeat beneath her cheek.  "You know, I don't truly like St. George's Church."

 "You don't?"

 "It always rains there."

 "Yes, I've noticed that."

 "Look."  Lucy pulled away long enough to gesture at the sky.  "The sun is shining now.  And I hear they know how to give weddings here in Gretna –"

 The truth can't be taken back.  Now it's possible for the listener to misinterpret, but it should always have some effect, should change the characters and their actions.  The moment one or both speaks openly about love– well, that's the truth the reader's been waiting for.  Take your time with this conversation.  Think of the revelation of love as the irrevocable and dangerous telling of a secret truth, with potentially dire consequences.  And leave a little time to show the actually wonderful consequences awaiting the character brave enough to tell the truth.

 Dialogue takes up a lot of space in a book, and is particularly appealing to readers, as it reveals character in so many ways.  So don't waste the space.  Look at dialogue passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)

 One final thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point.  Without conflict in the conversation, you might just as well summarize it in narrative:  She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.  If you’re going to have dialogue, make the tension in it lead to the change, propel them towards change.

Seven Tips for Active Dialogue

Keep it short: Try to have no more than 3-4 lines between "   ", then insert an action, change speakers, switch to a quick thought.  This creates more white space, suggests more movement, forces you to be cogent and quick.

Keep it snappy:  This is conversation, not a lecture.  Go for demand-reply, stimulus-response... aim for conflict within the conversation.  SHOW the conflict by snapping back and forth.  They don't have to be  vicious as long as they can interrupt each other. :)

Keep it interactive:  Use conversational cues like interruptions, repeated keywords ("You should give him a refund, dad." "Refund? Refund?"), back and forth question-and-answer or provocation-response dynamics.  They can echo each other or contradict each other or mimic each other's rhythms.  Or they can interpret each other --
"Just once, I'd like us to have a Christmas, just the two of us."
"Come on, what you really mean is, you hate my mother."
"Okay, I hate your mother."

Keep it dynamic:  The conversation should change the plot in some way if possible-- she reveals something she didn't mean to, they figure something out together, he makes an enemy....  Also show the conversation changing as it goes on. Don't get stuck in a static is-not/is-so conflict repetition.  They start out agreeing and end up realizing that they're at odds, or they start out hopelessly deadlocked and talk their way to a truce.

Keep it subtext:  Use dialogue to show what lies underneath-- a flirtation?  A secret? A deception?  What's being concealed yet still revealed?

Keep it meaningful:  Forget the "hello, how are you?" Make every dialogue exchange count. Start conversations in a provocative way, like:  "Where the hell have you been?" or "I should have known I'd find you here," or "Hey, it's you! I've been dreaming about you."

Keep it authentic: READ IT ALOUD!!!! Make sure you hear it in your real ear before sending it to the reader's "mental ear".

Alicia Rasley's writing articles can be found at

Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.

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