Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Making Dialogue Dynamic

Paula Reed
By Paula Reed

JH: Today let's welcome author Paula Reed to the blog. She's here to talk to us about dialogue, and how we can makes our more dynamic.

Paula's historical romance, Hester, is a companion piece to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which she answers some of the questions The Scarlet Letter left behind. Her other historical romances include: Nobody's Saint, For Her Love, and Into His Arms

Take it away Paula...

One distinct advantage for me in writing dialogue is the years I spent doing theater. A play is, after all, almost exclusively dialogue, but a play cannot come alive simply by reading all the lines. Even reading with expression is not enough. The director and actors work together to blend pacing, motion, and gestures to convey both the dialogue and its subtext.

Any actress, regardless of the size of her part, must create internal monologs, answers to the actress’s perennial question, “What’s my motivation?” A bad actress drops character when she’s not speaking and waits for her partner to finish delivering his lines, only switching back “on” to deliver her next ones. A fair actress knows she is supposed to be sad or happy or whatever and makes sure she continues to keep the appropriate expression on her face. If the situation requires it, she may even go from sad to happy at the delivery of good news.

A good actress thinks her character’s thoughts the whole time her partner is speaking, and her thoughts are reflected in her movement: Juliet’s mother comes to her daughter with “good” news. Juliet thinks, Who cares about Paris? I’m Romeo’s true wife after last night…wait! She conveys these thoughts and the shift physically, perhaps looking not at her mother, but dreamily out the window through which Romeo has just climbed. Then she focuses on Lady Montague. What’s my mother saying? I’m supposed to marry Paris? In three days? Her expression goes from besotted to disbelieving—she puts her hand to her mouth. I can’t marry Paris! The alarm sets in, and she holds her hands up, as if to stop her mother’s words. “Now by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter, too…” She tells her mother she won’t marry Paris.

In writing, I take these lessons with me. It is not enough to add an adverb here and there to “he said” (dryly, sarcastically, enthusiastically, sorrowfully…oy!). Internal monolog mixed with what would be called “stage business” in the theater, make dialogue come alive on the page. At the same time, I can’t write a mere description of thought and motion, either. As you can see above, good acting still makes for clunky writing. It’s all about blending.

Take the following example from my latest release, Hester, a companion novel to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The story is told in the first person, so you will see a good bit of what Hester Prynne is thinking. At the same time, I needed to convey the emotions and motivations of others in the room, so I had to rely upon physical cues:
"Is that all?" Cromwell pushed.
Chapham glanced at me and coughed again, harder this time.

And then I realized why I was there. Robert had experienced firsthand my uncanny perception, and others had been known to comment on their discomfort in my presence. Lord Cromwell somehow doubted Chapham's story, and Robert had offered me to provide proof of its accuracy or falsehood. Hot anger singed me. How dare they use me thus?

"My Lord—" I began, but he raised his hand, and I fell silent. His was an extraordinarily compelling air of authority. Involuntarily, I recalled in vivid detail that day upon the scaffold, forced to stand mute before the crowd, wanting to shout them all down, but fearful and ashamed. What if Robert or Cromwell had learned how I had come by my intuition? What if my newfound life was about to crumble here as it had in America?

I met Major Chapham's gaze and watched his eyes widen and his face turn red. His throat moved convulsively, his collar twitching. He set his jaw and glared at me in open animosity.

Treason. I had seen the black shadow of his crime but not recognized it, for it was one of the few I had never committed myself in deed or thought. Though he looked as if he wanted me dead, I gave no quarter. One of us would be exposed this night, and it was not going to be me. "I did ask at dinner," I reminded him.

He thrust his finger into his collar and cleared his throat several times, looking at Robert. "I spoke with the Marquis of Argyll, himself, once or twice."

"Look at Mistress Prynne," Robert repeated. "Did you meet with anyone else of importance in Scotland?"

Chapham glanced over at me and cleared his throat several more times. "No, not really. I-I-I had my men, a-and—What?" he suddenly ejaculated. "Why do you look at me that way?" He stood and addressed Cromwell. "This is of no interest to her. Who is she to the likes of us?"

"She is my wife's friend," Robert replied.

Cromwell remained in his seat, his penetrating stare fixed upon Chapham. "Did you visit with any of the Highland chieftains, while you were there, Joseph? Angus MacDonnell, perhaps?"

"No!" he shouted. "No! What business would I have with Royalists like—?"

"To Mistress Prynne, if you please," Cromwell said.

"No. I have nothing to say to her."

"My Lord," I said, tired of the game, more frightened than I cared to admit, even to myself, "Major Chapham is correct. I have no—"

"Look Mistress Prynne directly in the eyes and tell her that you had no dealings with MacDonnell. Then the matter will be settled, Major," Cromwell assured him, his tone steady and patient.

Chapham slouched, and his tone was sullen. "No."

Cromwell stood, leaning on the table and glaring at Chapham. "Do it!" His voice bounced from ceiling to ceiling, ringing through the archways.
Chapham’s physical cues of discomfort then panic (coughing, flushing, refusing to make eye contact, finally yelling) compete with Robert and Cromwell’s calmness. At first, Cromwell doesn’t even bother to rise when Chapham does. When Cromwell finally does assert himself, his authority is omnipresent, “ringing through the archways.”

So while tone and vocal manner are important, don’t forget to mix in liberal quantities of internal conflict and physical cues. You may even find that becoming more aware of these in writing makes you more insightful of other’s emotions and motives in real life.

About Hester
Upon the death of her demonic husband, Hester Prynne is left a widow, and her daughter is left a wealthy heiress. Together they travel to England where Hester seeks a quiet life-only to find herself drawn into the circle of the most powerful Puritan of all time, Oliver Cromwell.

From the moment Hester donned the famous scarlet letter, it instilled in her the power to see the sins and hypocrisy of others, an ability not lost on the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. To Cromwell, Hester's sight is either a sign of sorcery or a divine gift that Hester must use to assist the divinely chosen in his scheming to control England. Since sorcery carries a death sentence, Hester is compelled against her will to use her sight to assist Cromwell. She soon finds herself entangled in a web of political intrigue, espionage, and forbidden love.

Sweeping, engaging historical fiction, Hester will carry readers away to seventeenth century England with a deeply human story of family, love, history, desire, and the human ideal. 


  1. Thanks for stopping by today, Paula! I really love the theater tie-in with the dialog. That's a great tip for dealing with non-POV characters too.

  2. I agree, great tie in with the theater. I am also very intrigued by your story sample. Beautiful use in the excerpt of dialogue, "stage business," and gesture cues to show emotions!

  3. Yes, I love how you tied in subtext to the entire thing. It goes a long way to making a scene come alive if I know what all the characters are thinking, not just the ones whose head we're in. Thanks!

  4. Wow, that sounds like a really fantastic book. It's going on my TBR pile. Thanks for a great interview Paula. Much continued success.

  5. Thanks everyone! I hope this was useful!

  6. Hi Janice and Paula .. very interesting indeed - loved reading, seeing and feeling the dramatic emotions within the character ..

    Really enjoyed that - thanks Hilary