The Importance of Being Verbal

I’m reading along in a draft manuscript thinking things are looking OK. I have an external conflict (a plot to assassinate the Regent, for example), and I have a Hero and Heroine who kissed on page 50 and who each think the other could be behind the plot. I have Chemistry, and snappy repartee, historically accurate settings, and my, this could be a half decent book!

But then, somewhere between pages 50 and 100, I find myself skimming my own deathless prose.

This is not good. Any time the reader skims, the writer is on thin ice. It’s a short hop from skimming a few paragraphs, to skimming a few pages, to putting the book down and forgetting to pick it up Ever Again.

A few occasions of Did Not Finish are inevitable—not every book can work for every reader—but they are a blow, and one wants to avoid blows.

Readers generally skim descriptive writing, but they are less likely to skim dialogue.

So…. One of the questions I ask myself when working on revisions is, “Can I put any of this description, any of this internal reflection, into dialogue?”

A fine idea, but dialogue requires two characters, and this is often the best reason for compelling secondary characters. They get the protagonists out of Navel Gazing Mode, and give the reader and the author a break from having Him and Her on the page together incessantly.

Why don’t readers skim dialogue?

I suspect it’s because when we read, we’re in the POV character’s head, and just as when somebody talks to us in real life, it’s hard to ignore somebody talking with us on the page.

Then too, many of us have had the experience of smacking into a revelation in the course of a conversation. I’d been in therapy for three years, and been a parent for two-and-half years, when the nice lady casually asked me, “So what about your father? What’s he like?”

THREE YEARS I’d babbled on about my situation, my upbringing, my woes and wants and whims, and in that entire time, I’d failed to even sketch my father for the professional whose job it was to help me organize my issues—and mind you, when I was growing up, my dad was (physically) home for dinner every night at six.

That there was your basic Life Changing Moment, and I think it could only have happened in the context of hours and hours and hours of dialogue.

I also think readers are drawn to dialogue because from way, way back, we’re programmed to learn audibly. We learn (in part) from stories, from songs, from anecdotes and all of that requires paying attention when somebody else opens their mouth and makes sounds. People who pay attention to dialogue and discourse are people who learn early and well how to hunt for dinner, plant the yams, and otherwise get on in life.

 So watch for the dialogue. On the page, in life, it can be where the most significant advances are made on the character arc and in solving the external conflict.

Have any memorable dialogues befallen you? Have you read any dialogue scenes that really, really stuck with you? To three commenters, I’ll send gift certificates for a six month membership to Discover A New Love.

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19 comments on “The Importance of Being Verbal

  1. I love coming across a new writer whose dialogue makes me smile. Juliana Gray’s A LADY NEVER LIES, a retelling of sorts of Shakespeare’s LOVES LABOURS LOST, charmed the pants off me. I did wonder, though, since the writer claims to be a “clandestine author,” whether she’d been published before under another name…

    • Sometimes the writer is a college professor in line for tenure (Eloisa James, Katherine Ashe), or a child welfare attorney (ahem), or involved in some other profession that might not understand the romance writing. Then too, one enjoys one’s privacy. Who knows, maybe the author works at the local YMCA, and is the smiling face a lot of people walk right past without suspecting a thing….?

      • My husband is in the Military. I write with a pen name so it doesn’t connect to him. Maybe after he retires, in 5 or so years, I’ll consider using my own name. Or then again, maybe I’ll be happy with my alter-ego and will just roll with it! 🙂

  2. I totally agree with your comment about “skimmers”. I’m guilty of skimming over descriptions of locations, the day, the house, etc but only because I enjoy great dialogue between characters. I don’t have a particular favorite but I enjoy witty, snarky banter that adds humor to the reading as well as adds another layer to the character making them more human and believable.

    • I don’t consider skimming a reader fault. Sometimes I skim because the action has me TOO MUCH in its grasp, and I want to find out the resolution of the story more than I want to soak up the beautiful prose. When Eloisa James had the Duke of Villiers in a medical crisis at the end of Gemma and Elijah’s story, I was more concerned for Villiers than for the lovers. It was Skim, Skim, Skim until Villiers passed through his crisis, then I went back and read, read, read.

      • This is why I re-read … first read is to find out What Happens, and the second/third/etc reads are to enjoy the other bits and writerly craft.

  3. I agree! Dialogue is very important in understanding a character and for revealing thoughts and revelations. Plus, it brings to life your secondary characters and can assist in plot twisting. I am very guilty of skimming over over descriptive sections of books. I get it. It’s (fill in the blank). But does it really need to be 3 or 4 paragraphs or a full chapter? I also get tired of the author being too repetitive in the back story, reminding you of something over and over. I think we got it after the second time. 🙂

    • Abso, Kylan. I like Don Maass’ guidance with respect to back story; It goes in the back, as far back as you can push it, and then it ought to come across as a Reveal, if not a revelation.

      And some internal reflection is needed. It’s where we find the character being most true to themselves, most honest in their own voice.

  4. Diana Gabaldon is my Queen of Effective Dialogue. There are so many bits of dialogue from the Outlander series that have stuck in my head…even after 21 years of reading these books. (I discovered Outlander in 1991 when it was first published.) Often, the speaker of these great bits of dialogue is Jamie, and I’ve wondered if this is partly because so much of the story is told from Claire’s perspective, which means we’re not privy to Jamie’s thoughts the way we are privy to Claire’s. So Gabaldon must have Jamie voice the thoughts that are rattling around in his head. He does so beautifully. My favorite line of his in the whole series is the closing line of The Fiery Cross: “When the day shall come that we do part, if my last words are not ‘I love you’ — you’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”

    I find that in my reading, I’m generally more attuned to the words spoken by the man. Tradition has it that the woman is more forthcoming when it comes to verbalizing emotions, so when the male character does it, it’s more impactful for me. Of course, there’s a fine line: I don’t want the male characters to come across as mush-mouthed or TOO hearts-and-flowers as to completely defy belief.

    I particularly want great dialogue from the male character if the story is written in 1st person POV. I read a fair bit of urban fantasy, much of it with a romantic relationship between the central couple (ie, Mercy Thompson and Adam Hauptman, Kate Daniels and Curran Lennart), so the guy’s dialogue is very important to me.

    As for skimming…. I most usually skim sex scenes, particularly if they’re too belabored or too numerous. (And here I’ll admit that not only did I not skim ANY of the sex scenes in your Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal, but the first one between Maggie and Benjamin made me tear up.) I will also skim scenes with characters or subplots I don’t like. I tend NOT to skim descriptive scenes. I like some rich historical detail, and really enjoy it when a novel teaches me something I didn’t already know.

  5. Nifty, I WISH I could connect my editor with the many readers who blithely report skipping all sex scenes. I try to make each scene uncuttable, that is, it has to advance plot or character, preferably both, so the hot scenes are more than just hot. Makes no difference to some readers–a skimming they will go, in part because they’ve been conditioned that steamy scenes are skippable.


    • I enjoy a well-written sex scene. I don’t skip/skim all of them, every time. I just don’t need the scene to be 10 pages and scandalously inventive. I like it when the characters are making an emotional connection in the scene rather than just a physical one: emotional yearning not just physical yearning. (I think that’s why I teared up when reading Maggie and Ben’s first sex scene together. I could feel Maggie’s emotional yearning.) I also enjoy a well-placed profanity or crude word, but too many of them can be diminishing.

  6. Readers generally skim descriptive writing, but they are less likely to skim dialogue.

    How true! Although I have also learned to pay attention to descriptive details after reading How Fiction Works by James Wood.

    Favorite quote: I vividly remember Julie Anne Long’s “Miss Vale, You have stars in your hair.” from How the Marquess Was Won.

    I’ve read books where there are scenes or a block of dialogue that really stand out and are highlighted (by many Kindle readers) — but there are also books where the whole book just shines without any one passage standing out. — not sure if that makes sense. ^_^

    Thank you for this insight into your writing. ^_^

  7. I truly believe that we are led to the books that we need to read and those literary scenes have such an impact on us when we need them.

    For emmotional impact, most recent in my mind is Sherry Thomas’s “Ravishing the Heiress” when Fitz sees Millie arrive at the train station, her viewing of her reaction to seeing Isabelle with him and his family; and towards the end when Mille tells Fitz she thinks they should annul their marriage after eight years of friendship and love. The scene in “Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal” when Maggie and Her Grace are in the garden and Maggie refutes Cecily as her mother. Her Grace’s words “I am your mother, His Grace is your papa, and you are OUR daughter.”

    However, my absolute favorite goes to the scene in “The Soldier” where Douglas and Devlin are together after Devlin’s setback with Lady Tosten. There are no words to show appreciation for that scene. Emotional scenes between men can be so difficult to get right without them becoming cliched. You nailed it right on with them understanding each other and finding comfort in each other’s presence. Douglas’s words of comfort knowing Devlin killed Helmsley to prevent his brothers from doing so: “And you would kill for them…By far the harder choice…”

    Emmie’s words in “The Soldier” also ring true: “You lose the worst memories…and you lose memories of survival; forget them, and survival loses some of its meaning.” Truer words were never spoken. I have a “therapy packet” at home. Passages from books and poems I have read that have had a profound impact on me. Each passage marks a diffilcult time in my past. When I am in a funk and need a morale boost, I pull it out and read those passages. They help me cope with what is happening in my life at the time by remembering where I was and what I was going through when I chose them.

    As for skimming, I’m as guilty as the next person. However I find when I re-read the book, the bits I’ve skimmed though stand out due to their novelty. I usually end up kicking myself for not reading them the first time. Now I know that if I’m tempted to skim, it is usually due to a lack of concentration. At that point, I set down the book and take a “brain break” until I am refreshed and ready to absorb the tale being told.

    • Christina, I’ve found when I overtly resort to my foster care lawyer experience, many readers can’t relate. When I draw on the trauma and recovery experiences obliquely, I get the sort of scenes you listed. Most readers get those, though a few recoil. I agree with Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” And conversely.

  8. I don’t skim. Not in a book that interests me. (And not when I read it the first time. When reading the second, third… time, of course I pick the cream parts.) If I feel like skimming rather often in a book, then eventually I will drop it but having fought my way through so far.
    And the only stuff I would ever skim are descriptions esp. of interior, NEVER dialogue, you got that right, Grace. But what is important are descriptions of how the hero(ine) feels and what they think.
    As for great dialoge, there are a few scenes in Judith McNaught’s books like the one in Almost heaven, when Ian finds Elisabeth in his garden talking to flowers to make them bloom better and he admits that it must work, as his ordinary garden became something else after she walked in: heaven. Also in ‘Paradise’ where in the end Meredith offers for him and tells him she is up to a trip and asking him to take her to paradise.
    And the Windhams impress me, too: I do love the whole scenes where Hazlit and Maggie talk to her Grace after their lovemaking, where her Grace so cleverly solves the situation, and points out in her mind ‘his lady’s piece of mind’ and then later with Maggie ‘our child’.
    And I find rather many great scenes in The Soldier, esp. the ones with Douglas: the one Christina G. farther up is refering to and very much the one where they talk about Devlin writing to Emmie, and where Douglas tells him that he loves him and thanks him for his service. Woooa.

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  10. I enjoyed your post and admit that there are quite a few authors who would benefit from taking some of your observations to heart. It is very rare that I do not finish a book but I do admit to skimming some, especially those which have an inordinate amount of violence or long descriptions of the weapons being used. (I don’t care how many tons of what were used to blow something up…it either blew the ship/building/etc. up or it didn’t!) I agree that dialogue slows me down, especially when I have to stop and see who is speaking. There are several exchanges that I have saved from the works of Nora Roberts and Thea Harrison as they resonate with me and appeal to my love of romance.