Get a Free Ebook

Five Inspirational Truths for Authors

Try our Video Classes

Downloadable in-depth learning, with pdf slides

Find out more about My Book Therapy

We want to help you up your writing game. If you are stuck, or just want a boost, please check us out!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Speaking of that...a Lesson on Dialogue with Gail Gaymer Martin

Multi-award-winning author, Gail Gaymer Martin ,writes for Steeple Hill, Barbour Publishing, and Writers Digest. Gail has signed forty fiction contracts and has over 1 million books in print. She is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers and a keynote speaker and workshop presenter at conferences across the U.S. She has a Masters degree and post-master’s classes from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Look for her book, Writing the Christian Romance from Writers Digest released in December 2007. Visit her website at


"Hi. How are you?"

"Fine. Thanks, and you?"

"I’m doing well."

"Glad to hear it."

Would you read a novel that offers this kind of dialogue? I doubt it. Dialogue is not conversation. Conversation can be boring. In a romance, as in any fiction, dialogue serves three basic purposes—to move the storyline forward by providing backstory or new information, to set a mood or establish a theme, and to reflect character through attitude, speech mannerisms, and word choice. Dialogue can tell us something about the characters education, career, ethnic background, age, and place of residence.

Purposes of Dialogue

Chitchat is part of daily conversation, but dialogue must move the story along by filling in the blanks. In Loving Ways, we learn more about Annie and Ken’s characters through dialogue when Ken notices a water color hanging on her living room wall and realizes Annie painted it. Read the dialogue without the action and introspection and notice how much you learn about the characters through their words.

"Annie, they’re beautiful. I had no idea you were an artist."

"I wouldn’t call me an artist."

"I would," he said.

"Thank you."

"You’re welcome. Have you painted others?"

"A whole attic full."


"Seriously. Sailboats. Sunsets. More flowers."

"You should sell them."

"You mean I should rent space at a gas station like the people who sell those black-velvet paintings?"

"Not quite. Look. I’m practical. Don’t forget this is a tourist town. People spend money like water when they’re on vacation, and paintings like these could sell. Once you have a reputation, who knows what they would bring in?"

"I don’t think so," she said. "Look at them. They’re flawed."

"Life’s flawed. That’s what makes them real."

Dialogue Styles

One thing that’s obvious— men and women have different interests and styles. Men talk about sports, politics and business. Women talk about feelings and relationships. Women express their emotions. Men tend to cover them with silence or change the subject.

Dialogue should reflect the way people really talk, but needs to be controlled so that it’s realistic yet purposeful.

How can an author do this? First, people don’t speak in long paragraphs. Dialogue is often broken by interruptions or by action and introspection. Sentences are not always complete or follow a logical pattern. Responses sometimes only repeat what the other character has said. Questions are avoided by talking around the question or responding with another question. This keeps the dialogue sounding real while creating conflict and interest. It also gives the page white space which is reader friendly.

"Why are you so quiet?" Sue asked.

"I’m thinking," Bob said.


"Yes, about my business trip this weekend. I’ll have lots of free time."

"Free time?"

"Would you like to go with me?" he asked.

"Go with you? Why?"

"Well, I thought--"

"You figured I’d jump at the chance to go. Well, you’re wrong."

He Said. She said

Look at the dialogue above. Notice the word said or asked is used only three times yet the reader knows who is speaking. If tags are used, said and asked are the two most acceptable choices. Most other tags (replied, inserted, quipped) are distracting and are signs of an inexperienced writer. Rather than using tags, an author can use an action or internal monologue and introspection to show the speaker. Using the lines above, notice how this makes the speaker obvious.

"Go with you? Why?" She shifted closer.

"Well, I thought--"

You thought. I bet you did. For the first time she realized the kind of man he really was. "You figured I’d jump at the chance to go. Well, you’re wrong."

Dialogue Subtext

Subtext is the underlying meaning in dialogue. In real life, people often say words that have an added meaning below the obvious one.

"Do you like my dress?"

"The color is beautiful."

The question isn’t quite answered, and the comment leaves us wondering if the person responding dislikes the dress so only comments on the color. In Loving Ways, Annie’s two sisters, Donna and Susan, arrive for their father’s funeral. Much of their conversation has subtext. Here’s an example:

Donna’s expression registered the first note of empathy Annie had witnessed. "You spent your life rescuing dad when no one else would."

Susan snorted. "That’s because the rest of us had better sense." She glowered in Annie’s direction. "And don’t start quoting the Bible."

Donna slapped her hand against the chair arm. "Susan, you don’t have to be unkind and you know the Bible makes sense. Annie did what she thought was right." She looked at Annie. "What will you do now?"

"Good question. I had to quit my job when Pa got really bad, so I suppose I’ll have to find work."

"We don’t want a pity party, Annie," Susan said. "You chose to stay here. As Mom always said, you made your bed and now you have to lie in it."

"Donna asked the question, Susan. I’m not complaining. I’ll have to get things in order here, and then carve a new life for myself."

The thought of carving something cut through Annie’s mind. Her sister’s pearl-draped throat, for one. The evil thought made her smile inside but, as quickly, caused her to send up a prayer. Patience, Lord.

"When you think about it, Annie," Donna said, "you’ve had it pretty easy. No kids to worry about, no husband to please. . .or try to please." She rolled her eyes. "You didn’t even have to work the past couple of years."

"I wouldn’t call that easy," Annie said. "Pa was still as tough as nails to--"

Donna eyed her manicure. "Speaking of nails, I haven’t had mine done in weeks."

The dialogue is rich with undertones that helps bring the characters to life and makes it sound real.

Real but purposeful

Remember, making dialogue realistic is making the words work to move the story forward. Use the dialogue to reflect characterization, to arouse the reader’s curiosity, and to create conflict. Break up large pieces of dialogue with character actions and interruptions, and don’t forget internal monologue which adds the element of truth to the dialogue.

A pregnant, widowed migrant worker in labor, a wealthy ranch owner who lost his wife and son in childbirth, and God's miraculous blessings.


  1. Thanks, Gail. This is such an important part of fiction, and many never seem to learn it.

  2. This was so helpful, Gail! Thanks NJ Girls for getting her to do this.

    Gail, Am praying for your next book, too. Can't wait for your Writers Digest book to come out!

  3. Thank you Gail for the great information on dialog. Very helpful. I can't wait for your WD book to come out. :-)

    And thanks NJ for giving Gail the chance to share such good advice with us.

  4. Thanks Gail and Liz! That was a great lesson in dialogue. I guess I was supposed to read this interview today, because I was struggling with the dialogue in a particular scene.

    Now I know right were I'm headed!


Don't be shy. Share what's on your mind.