The Power Of Dialogue In Love Stories

The Power Of Dialogue In Love Stories


In this essay, we examine the role and power of dialogue in love stories and romantic fiction. The post includes ‘Listen in’ examples to illustrate an idea and discussion points to encourage you to think of dialogue differently.

The Power Of Dialogue In Love Stories

When we are in love, we are at our most vulnerable. I think we can all acknowledge that. It is a dangerous time for lovers – everything is on the line.

While most of us may not even be aware of it, we are in the act of negotiating power, giving away something of ourselves, surrendering in stages (see The Almost Moment). And words play a part in the contract, in finding the laws of new emotional territory.

Let’s start with a basic staple of love stories: the declaration of love.

Listen in:

Consider ‘I love you’ – three words that thrill, terrify, free us, capture us, bind us, and set us free. There is undreamed happiness in those words. There can also be untold grief in three syllables. The cheap valentine card, the tombstone, both have a place.

Powerful Words

Words, of course, carry the most power. Perhaps even more than kisses, sex, and everything else. Which is why dialogue has so much power in a love story, a romantic novel, or even a dramatic movie. The dialogue is almost always fraught with hidden meanings, suggestions, hints, and impressions.

There is often repetition or recurring phrases. It is as if saying something twice makes short change of a lie for a character with something to hide. (‘I love you. I love only you.’ A bit too desperate. Overkill.)

The Colour Of Subtext

Somewhere between the lines and the characters themselves, there is ironic interplay, tension, sex, fear, longing, and insecurity. Subtext is everything.

Subtext serves as clues, as pieces of the puzzle. Half the joy for a reader is putting it all together – the tone of words spoken, things left unsaid.

Listen in:

A couple décor shopping for their first apartment. ‘What’s with that look?’ Ash says. ‘I get the feeling you don’t like this vase?’ And Alex says, ‘I didn’t say I didn’t like it, babe. I just don’t know if it will fit with the décor in the living room.’

Let’s look at what is going on here under the surface:

  1. Is Ash questioning the relationship? Does Alex have doubts too? Are they making a terrible choice moving in together?
  2. Is trust the real and unspoken issue in the relationship?
  3. What of the body language implicit here? (‘What’s with that look?’)
  4. And what of Alex’s appeasing ‘babe’ in a defensive statement? What do we make of that?
  5. What would the symbolism be if they ended up not buying the vase? Or, worse, breaking it?

As you can see in just 50 words or so there is so much going on in terms of dialogue. Buying a vase has become a metaphor for something larger.

The words are perhaps hiding something – well, at least in fiction they are. In real life, an argument over a vase might be just that: banal, of the moment, forgotten. But in fiction our words betray us.

[TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook]

Time & Words

As characters change, so do the words. The dialogue develops and changes over time. It could be a day or a decade, but the words take on new meaning: sometimes a deeper more poignant meaning, other times an opposite meaning.

‘I’ll never forget the day we met, Jamie!’ versus ‘I regret the day I ever laid eyes on you, James Smith’ is a simple example of this – but you get the point.

Listen in:

1940. A Frenchman meets a secret lover in Kenya, a handsome artist. On his return, he says to his bohemian Paris friends: ‘The true charms and real beauty all lie South of the Equator.’
1960. The same Frenchman, long after the affair is over and his heart was broken, is having drinks with friends. ‘I went to Africa once,’ he says. ‘It was hot and dusty. I wouldn’t recommend it.’

  1. How has time changed his words? What has replaced the romance?
  2. Why didn’t he feel he could be honest about a gay relationship?
  3. What words would he have used if he were talking directly to the love interest?

Or course, you can use this technique for happier love stories. For example, a couple who have been together for many years. At the start of the courtship, he says: ‘I love your laugh.’ At their silver wedding anniversary, he says: ‘I love that I can make you laugh. I love that by making you laugh I laugh too.’

The Body Of Truth

However, when it comes to the truth department, you may have to search hard to find those moments of truth in the words that lovers share. The lovers seldom say what they mean in a story world. In love, they can be indirect, abstract, oblique, and – worst of all – silent.

Never forget the power of silence in a love story. There is also something emotionally effective about where you place your pauses or breaks in dialogue.

For the smart writer, you can juxtapose what a character is saying with their body language and other signals. There is something in subtle physical subtext – gestures, facial expressions, or hidden in the eyes.

Listen in:

After matching on Tinder, Ella is meeting Matt at a cocktail bar for their third unofficial date.

‘You should come up to my loft, I have a great view,’ said Matt.
‘A great view, huh? Does that line actually work?’
He grinned. ‘I also make great Nespresso.’
‘I don’t know …’ Ella played with the thin stem of her wine glass. ‘I have an early start tomorrow – a nine o’clock meeting, gym.’
When she looked up, she met his steady blue gaze. She flicked her hair out of her neck. ‘One coffee. That’s it.’
He crossed his finger over his heart. He rocked back in the chair. ‘I’ll get the cheque.’

  1. Do you think they’ll end up indulging in more than a cup of coffee? What are the clues?
  2. Why is Ella being indirect in this scene? What would she say if she were honest? What is her own version of how she wants the evening to end?
  3. How does the dialogue and body language make Matt come across as confident or a flirt?

[TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook]

A Helping Of Humour

Sometimes verbal irony, sarcasm, and humour are lovely techniques to use in a story to ‘shake up’ the dialogue. It can add a touch of levity to a story and balance out the more dramatic elements in a story. Keep in mind that when it comes to humour, a little goes a long way. And you should always match the dialogue to a particular character.

Listen in:

After a breakup and a long separation, Selma’s ex-girlfriend Gloria tries to rekindle the flame. This is Selma’s monologue when Gloria shows up at the door.

‘I’ve got over you like a mild case of Corona – y’know, you think you’re going to die, but you don’t. You ask me how I’m going? I’m doing just great – I can breathe again, baby. If you think I need you back, you been drinkin’ too much of that CBD-infused tea. Sure we had some crazy times and you were always the best damn kisser… But see? No tears in these eyes. I got my new Borzoi dog, re-runs of ‘Real Housewives of Orange County’ and a new sangria recipe for the summer. So you think I’m all torn about you leavin’? I ain’t. All you left behind was a dusty PlayStation, some torn jeans and a broken heart – nothing that can’t be fixed or thrown out.’

  1. How is Selma using humour to cover up other emotions? Is she being honest in an exaggerated way or more abrasively sarcastic?
  2. Do you think she has really recovered from the break -up? Where does her dialogue slip?
  3. How does the last line betray her true feelings?

[TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook]

The Last Word

Whether you’re writing a light category romance or penning a dramatic and tragic love story, your dialogue can lend so much to the story. When you are aware of its power, you can use it to convey subtext, symbolism and much more.

Explore more romance writing posts on the site.

TOP TIP: If you want to learn how to write a romance, sign up for our online course, This Kiss.

anthony ehlers Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes aweso0me blog posts and workbooks too.

More Posts From Anthony:

  1. 7 Reasons Why ‘What If?’ Is The Most Important Question You Can Ask As A Writer
  2. Writers Talk 8 | My Year Of Writing
  3. The 5 Pillars Of Family Sagas
  4. 101 Romance Tropes For Writers
  5. 10 Powerful Visual Storytelling Techniques for Writers
  6. Novels & Screenplays: What’s The Difference?
  7. 4 Things To Do Before You Write A Single Word Of Your Screenplay

TOP TIP: If you want to learn how to write a romance, sign up for our online course, This Kiss.