The genre of a novel affects its pace, which in turn changes the way the dialogue is written.
I saw these effects recently in how members of my book group reacted to our latest book choice. I felt impatient with the dialogue. In fact, I skimmed most of it. To me, the pace was too slow. Not enough happened (in the dialogue or in the book as a whole).
Other members of the book group loved the dialogue. And an editorial review praised the novel, Lucinda Riley's The Seven Sisters, as a page-turner.
Not only that, the series has been optioned for a television miniseries deal.
So what's going on?
Genre And Pacing
I'm a fan of mystery, suspense, and thrillers. Those are the genres I read the most, and all the fiction I write falls at least loosely under those umbrellas.
The plots in these types of books move fast.
Amazon lists The Seven Sisters under the genres of Historical Fiction (with a sub-category of 20th-Century Historical Romance) and Women's Fiction.
Historical and women's fiction both usually focus on describing and developing relationships among the characters. And historical fiction typically includes detailed descriptions of settings and extensive historical context (and sometimes real historical events).
For those reasons, such books are often called “sweeping” or “epic” — as is The Seven Sisters in reviews.
While pacing varies among books of the same genre, the quietest, most cerebral mystery or suspense novel almost always moves more quickly, and is more plot driven, then the fastest historical fiction novel.
Dialogue reflects these genre differences.
A Tale Of Two Books
The first conversations that appear in the two books I talk about below illustrate these differences in pacing and dialogue.
In The Seven Sisters, Marina (“Ma”), the housekeeper who raised six daughters, calls to tell the protagonist, Maia, that her father died.
In Phantom Prey, by one of my favorite suspense authors, John Sandford, a woman named Fran goes into her house and finds blood. She calls the emergency police line to report it.
The dialogue (minus any description or other text around it) for each book is below:
The Seven Sisters
Maia: Hello, Ma, how are you?
Ma: Maia, I…
Maia: What is it?
Ma: There's no other way to tell you this, but your father had a heart attack here at home yesterday afternoon, and in the early hours of this morning, he… passed away.
Ma: You are the first of the sisters I've told, Maia, as you are the oldest. And I wanted to ask you whether you would prefer to tell the rest of your sisters yourself, or leave it to me.
Ma: Maia, please, tell me you are all right. This really is the most dreadful phone call I've ever had to make, but what else could I do? God only knows how the other girls are going to take it.
Operator: Is this an emergency?
Fran: There's blood in my house.
Operator: Are you in danger?
Fran: No, I don't… I don't…
Operator: Is this Mrs. Austin?
Fran: Yes. I just came home.
Operator: Go someplace safe, close by.
Fran: I need the police.
Operator: We are already on the way. Officers will be there in about a minute. Are you safe?
Fran: I, uh…don't know. Tell them….Tell them I'm going to the garage. I'm going to lock myself in the car. The garage door is up.
Both conversations convey tragedy and a certain amount of mystery. Also, the use of ellipses, “uh,” and repetition show us that that Fran and Maia are confused and in shock.
But word usage, content, and references to physical action all reflect the differences in the genres, as I talk about below.
Back Story, Action, Language
How much back story we get and how much action is suggested vary widely.
In Phantom Prey:
- The operator expresses concern that Fran may be in immediate physical danger.
- The dialogue includes the actions Fran will take to be sure she's safe.
- The conversation lacks any character back story. (There is some in the surrounding text, but not much.) We don't learn anything about the operator. We don't know if Fran has siblings or children.
- Fran and the operator don't have a pre-existing relationship.
The main questions the dialogue raises are (1) what happened that led to the blood in the house and (2) whether Fran will be physically safe.
- There's no immediate physical danger.
- No physical action is discussed.
- Back story is conveyed, including that Maia is the oldest child and has multiple sisters.
- Ma and Maia have a long relationship, as Ma raised Maia and her sisters.
The main questions the dialogue raises are (1) how Maia will deal with this loss and (2) how it will affect her sisters.
The number of syllables, words, and lines in each dialogue section also reflect pacing differences in the genres.
In Phantom Prey, each character's dialogue usually takes up a line or less on the page. The longest speech above is two sentences.
The words themselves also are short. Most are one syllable. And many sentences consist of only a few words.
The sentences in The Seven Sisters are longer and more complex. Ma often uses complete sentences, speaks in formal language, and includes back story that Maia already knows, but the reader doesn't.
Ma's dialogue also often consists of three lines (and sentences).
These differences account for why I found the dialogue in The Seven Sisters slow but my friends who read historical fiction were quite comfortable with it. They want to get that back story, and understand those complex relationships, early on.
If getting that information makes the dialogue sound less realistic and means we wait longer to find out what happens, that's okay. It's more important to delve in depth into the relationships.
I want to know what happens. Character and relationships matter, too, but I like both to be revealed through action and plot.
How Should You Write Your Dialogue?
The best way to hone your dialogue is to read widely in the genre of the type of book you plan to write.
You don't need to mimic the style of your favorite author (though sometimes that can be helpful as an exercise). But reading and studying the dialogue of your genre will help you understand what readers expect.
That way, you'll be aware if you're departing significantly from your genre.
You'll be prepared if some readers turn away because of it. Other readers, however, may love the way you shake up genre conventions.
That's all for today. Until next Friday, when I'll talk about how character influences dialogue (using examples from the same two books) —
P.S. For tips on writing realistic-sounding dialogue, check out 3 Things To Leave Out Of Your Dialogue.