Building Attraction with the Four Layers of Dialogue

 

In my experience there are three type of writers, or maybe three types of experiences readers have as they read a great novel.

  • You Love the Plot
  • You Love the Writing
  • You think both the Plot and Writing are Okay or Good, Not Great.

Now, there may be books in which you absolutely love the plot and the writing, but as a reader, I’ve never had this experience. All of my favorite books fall neatly into Great Plot or Great Writing buckets.

Catcher in the Rye is great writing. The story is meh. A kid ditches school and travels around the city for a short time. Boring plot on the surface, but the writing more than makes up for it.

Wuthering Heights is a great story. The cast of characters and the situations they find themselves in are crazy while the story also conveys a message about human nature. The writing…eh. It’s a classic, so who knows, I may have enjoyed it more in 1847, but it could have done with a good edit and the butchering of a Yorkshire dialect was tiresome.

This month, I participated in GoodReads Romance Readers June Challenge and one of the challenges was to read a book by their Author of the Month Lorraine Heath. I chose to read Texas Destiny since it was one of her most popular books.

LORDY LORDY LORDT.

This woman had me falling in love with a confederate soldier. HOW?

Amazing writing, that’s how.

Texas Destiny has two plot points that are usually turn offs for me. It’s set in the south after the Civil War. I typically don’t enjoy historical fiction, mostly because history has never been kind to people like me. And I wouldn’t have picked up this novel if it weren’t for the challenge and the fact that hero was disfigured, which is a break from the conventionally handsome alphas seen in most contemporary romances.

One of the things I worry about in historical fiction is a false romanticization of the past. I felt Lorraine Heath did a good job of not falling into this trap. But she did attempt to make the hero and heroine sympathetic characters. Houston, the hero, was in his early teens (13-15) when he entered the war as a drummer boy and was forced into the battlefield by his father. He was also hurt by an explosion that left him extremely disfigured.

Slavery is never mentioned directly in the book, but after the south fell and her home was taken over by northern soldiers, Amelia, the heroine and her mother were forced to work in the fields. So I can only assume they were slaveowners. I didn’t think the stories around this were told in an overly sympathetic way, but it’s possible I just didn’t feel any sympathy on either account.

The other plot squick in this for me is what I call “double-dipping.” Double dipping occurs when a female swaps bodily fluids with two men in the same gene pool. I don’t know why this is such a huge problem for me, but I just find it in poor taste to fool around with two members of the same family. It’s selfish to put your own desires over the relationship between two brothers or a father and son, because if you’re fickle, which double-dipping implies, once you leave these men alone, they’ll only have family to go back to. In this book’s defense though, the only bodily fluid that’s exchanged is spit and since it has a HEA ending, Amelia’s fickleness ends with Houston.

So two major plot points I usually dislike, but I still loved this book. Why? Why? I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve never understood the term “book boyfriend,” this desire by readers to date the hero of a story. I’ve read a lot of books and have never felt that way about a character… until Houston Leigh came along. I’d date him in a second and I would very much love a love like the one written in this book.

Lorraine Heath did a stellar job of building attraction and showcasing chemistry throughout this novel and you know, I could probably analyze it and break it down to a thousand different techniques she used, but who has the time? So I’m just going to speak on one technique that I noticed.

The Art of Dialogue: Using All Four Layers to Build Attraction

As I read Texas Destiny, the thing I was most impressed with were the early scenes of dialogue between Houston and Amelia. I noticed in many, maybe most instances, Lorraine Heath used four layers of content to build her dialogue scenes.

To showcase how each layer added emotional weight and lent itself to building attraction, I’ve taken an excerpt of Lorraine Heath’s writing to show each layer and how it’s been it added.

Layer 1: Dialogue

Dialogue isn’t dialogue without two characters speaking. Most writers know this and below is a simplified excerpt of pure dialogue from Texas Destiny.

“Miss Carson?”

“Mr. Leigh?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”  

Layers 1-2: Dialogue + Action

Most writers also write the actions characters take during dialogue scenes to add more color and provide readers into the nonverbal communication that’s always happening during a conversation.  

“Miss Carson?”

Amelia’s eyes flew open. Through her tears, she saw the profile of a tall man wearing a long black coat. Brushing the tears away from her eyes, she gave him a tremulous smile. “Mr. Leigh?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Slowly, he pulled his hat from his head.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered as she searched for words of reassurance. “I didn’t know.”  

Ah, so now we know Amelia can get emotional at times but doesn’t like to show it. We know Houston is a gentleman. And we know Amelia will apologize if she does something wrong and for some reason she feels the need to reassure a grown man… which could tell us about how Houston carries himself or how sensitive Amelia is to others’ feelings.  

Layers 1-3: Dialogue + Action + Reaction

Good writers will also include nonverbal reactions. Not only are you maintaining a verbal dialogue, you’re maintaining a nonverbal dialogue.

“Miss Carson?”

Amelia’s eyes flew open. Through her tears, she saw the profile of a tall man wearing a long black coat. Brushing the tears away from her eyes, she gave him a tremulous smile. “Mr. Leigh?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Slowly, he pulled his hat from his head.

With a tiny gasp, she caught her breath. She was unprepared for the uneven scars that bordered it and it and trailed down his cheek like an unsightly frame of wax melting in the sun. With fresh tears welling in her eyes, she reached out to touch his marred flesh. His powerful hand grabbed her trembling fingers, halting their journey of comfort. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she searched for words of reassurance. “I didn’t know.”  

Hot damn, now we know that Amelia’s going to be okay with Houston’s scars. We know Amelia wants to touch him and Houston doesn’t like being touched...which also gives us our first moment of conflict between the two.

Layers 1-4: Dialogue + Action + Reaction + Interpretation

The fourth layer is providing the character’s interpretation of the other’s words, voice, non-verbal cues, and presence. I see fewer writers adding in this fourth layer, likely because without skill it can slow down a scene. Additionally, it’s not something you experience or process in real life conversations. Most people don’t have the capacity to actively listen and respond, while also making internal judgements about the other person in fully composed sentences. However in writing you’re able to do this and I’d argue it helps your reader to begin feeling what your characters feel. The practice gives your writing an emotional weight.

Truthfully, I struggle with this aspect of dialogue but I think Lorraine Heath did an amazing job here.

“Miss Carson?”

Amelia’s eyes flew open as the deep voice enveloped her like a warm blanket on an autumn evening. Through her tears, she saw the profile of a tall man wearing a long black coat. His very presence was strong enough to block out the afternoon sun.

She could tell little about his appearance except that he’d obviously bought a new hat in order to impress her. He wore it low so it cast a shadow over his face, a shadow that shimmered through her tears.

Brushing the tears away from her eyes, she gave him a tremulous smile. “Mr. Leigh?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Slowly, he pulled his hat from his head. The shadows retreated to reveal a strong, bold profile. A strip of leather creased his forehead and circled his head. Amelia had seen enough soldiers return from the war to recognize that he wore a patch over the eye she couldn’t see.

His obvious discomfort caused an ache to settle within her heart. With a tiny gasp, she caught her breath. She had expected the black eye patch. She was unprepared for the uneven scars that bordered it and it and trailed down his cheek like an unsightly frame of wax melting in the sun. With fresh tears welling in her eyes, she reached out to touch his marred flesh. His powerful hand grabbed her trembling fingers, halting their journey of comfort. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she searched for words of reassurance. “I didn’t know.”  

The thoughts highlighted here aren’t thoughts normal people have. Normal people are too busy maintaining a conversation to entertain these tangents. But they’re the little touches that allow the reader to be swept away.

Sum of my thoughts?

LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS BOOK. GO GET IT and let me know what you think. I probably won’t be reading the other two books in the series because the heroes were introduced in Texas Destiny and I wasn’t a fan of them. But I’ll definitely be reading Lorraine Heath again.

Questions for the audience:

  • What are your plot squicks?
  • Have you ever read and enjoyed a book with a plot you didn’t love?
  • As a reader do you think the components of dialogue I’ve outlined actually make a story better or bog it down?
 
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