Good morning! I'm kicking off the first stop on my blog for the Springtime in Surrey blog swap today. (For more details on where to find other articles by all the authors in the anthology, check out this schedule: https://andreareneecox.com/2023/07/01/blog-swap-information-and-schedule/) Today we start out with Grace A. Johnson, author of Her Heart's Home, who will get us thinking about what Hallmark can teach us about character interactions. Let's get to it!
When someone says Hallmark, the first thing that comes to mind is what not to do. Don’t be cheesy. Don’t be cliché. Don’t be unrealistically happy all the time. Hallmark is rarely—if ever--the gold standard (heck, it ain’t even the bronze standard) for good storytelling. Not even for romance. (Some of their older, circa the 20th century, films, yes. Their newer stuff? Nope.)
But if there’s one thing Hallmark has actually managed to do decently in a lot of their productions is create engaging, meaningful character interactions.
I know that sounds crazy, but I’m serious! I’ll be using their two most popular series--Signed, Sealed, Delivered and When Calls the Heart--for examples, just to prove it to you! (Speaking of, beware of spoilers for these two shows! If you’ve already seen them or don’t care to ever watch them, you may proceed. Otherwise, caution is advised.)
Even though Hallmark is visual, you can still learn a lot from their methods and apply it to your writing, from utilizing nonverbal communication to enhance dialogue and creating unique character voices to tailoring your dialogue to the story and being intentional with every moment!
There’s not much about Hallmark actors that set them apart from the crowd...but you gotta admit, they have the most expressive faces! With just the bat of their eyes, they can convey a million emotions, and it’s mesmerizing!
Even though books don’t have the capability of showing you the characters’ faces, you can still use changes in facial expressions and small gestures to enrich or even replace dialogue!
To enrich dialogue: Include action tags or breaks in the character’s dialogue to show their actions or expressions. Sometimes, just a gesture or a blink can reveal more about your character’s thoughts and emotions than their words can! Let’s take a look at a few examples...
Her eyes widened. “Are you sure?” The line of dialogue is so simple that it could be anything from sarcastic to angry; adding the change in her facial expression indicates that she’s surprised.
“Did Joey mention when he was coming?” he asked, his foot tapping on the floor. Again, the dialogue is vague, and we could easily add an adverb after “he asked” to clarify that he’s impatient, but adverbs don’t give the readers an image or add any motion to the scene. So having his foot tap adds movement and clarification without telling!
To replace dialogue: Substitute a line of dialogue or any small talk with an action. Actions speak louder than words, after all, so in tense or active moments or with quiet characters, consider trading most of your dialogue for actions. In fact, in any dialogue-rich moment, try cutting out a few lines and turning them into nods or sighs and see how her scene comes to life! For example…
She held up the missing necklace, and he lifted his eyebrows at the sight of them. A simple gesture or two can convey what clunky dialogue like this would: “Oh, look, I found the necklace,” she said as she held it up. “Where did you find it?” he asked.
He glared at her. Even an entire argument or rant could be summed up in an expression, which makes characters seem more alive and genuine, as well as making your scenes flow smoother and faster instead of dragging them down!
How Hallmark did it: They used every facial feature and body movement to convey a thought or emotion. They kept the character’s personality in mind too, making both their dialogue and action authentic and their interactions natural.
One of my favorite moments is in When Calls the Heart, where the typically-bubbly Rosemary Coulter just looks for a minute, her expression solemn and her dialogue limited to just an “oh,” after Dr. Carter tells her she’s probably pregnant. Seeing this happy, peppy character reduced to such a sober state is so poignant, and it’s all done through nonverbal communication.
My other favorite moment is Shane and Oliver’s (Shane’s the heroine and Oliver is the very dashing hero *winks*) first on-screen kiss in Signed, Sealed, Delivered...or, actually, the interactions between them leading up to it! Shane’s motions and expressions are so powerful and emotional, enhancing her dialogue, which would’ve been dull and mundane without her amazing performance! And even though Oliver isn’t very expressive, the smallest movement on his face can say a lot, sometimes even more than his words!
How you can do it: Practice by imagining your characters as actors. You can use clips from your favorite movies, task your friends with acting out their interactions, or just studying your expressions in the mirror to find the right ways to communicate different words, thoughts, and emotions non-verbally! I also recommend paying attention to how other people react in real life, and how you see or understand others based on their nonverbal communication. After all, 93% of communication is nonverbal, and 55% of first impressions are based on what we see—whether that’s their expression, their clothing, or the way they walk or shake hands!
Unique Character Voices
One of my favorite parts of reading and writing are the unique character voices. (This is apparent due to the fact that I will spend three months developing their voices and no time plotting or actually writing.) Some authors simply excel at making their characters come to life through their distinct narratives and dialogue, and so does Hallmark.
Even though their voices are real, verbal voices, they all begin as dialogue in a script, and I’ve noticed Hallmark has actually done as pretty good job making them unique and distinguishable—especially in Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
All four of the main characters—Shane, Oliver, Rita, and Norman—as well as the secondary characters like Ramon and Ardis, have voices, tones, speech patterns, and preferred phrases so original and them, that I could easily tell them apart just by reading their lines!
The fun fact is that the stark contrast in how everyone talks is even addressed in the show, when Shane starts making comments that sound eerily like what Oliver would say! Even without making mention of it, the audience could easily pick up on the change in Shane’s lines when she began talking like Oliver, as well as just how different the entire cast is according to what they say.
How Hallmark did it: They stayed attuned to the characters’ personalities and background while writing their lines, making their dialogue sound natural and authentic to the characters, as well as unique. They also stayed consistent with specific speech patterns and preferences, like Oliver’s tendency to quote Shakespeare and the Bible, or Shane’s blunt, no-nonsense attitude.
How you can do it: Think of your narrative (especially if it’s first-person) and dialogue as lines in a script. How would your characters say the words? Would they sound natural or forced? Would they repeat themselves because they’re shy or ramble because they’re hyperactive?
Ask yourself if your characters have any specific speech or thought patterns, impediments, or preferences. Keep a list of any phrases or quotes they might use continually, or any accents or hindrances they have. Remember that their culture, how they were raised, what time period they live in, and their current lifestyle have an impact on how and what they say.
For example, I’ve been raised in the South by godly parents, and I live in a rural area with lots of farmland, poor whites, and African-Americans. Because of my specific culture, I have a Southern accent, I use a lot of slang, I talk fast (no, Southerns do not drawl around here, believe it or not), and I’m often quoting Scripture, making idle threats, or using sayings that make absolutely no sense. (Y’all ever seen a chicken run around without a head? No? Yeah, me neither.)
So, some of my nonsensical sayings would be interspersed throughout my narrative; my dialogue might be phonetically spelled with a lot of missing consonants; and my internal monologue might just be a bunch of run-on sentences. And just like that, you can incorporate different aspects of your characters’ personalities, lifestyles, and cultures into every aspect of your writing to make them stand out!
I’m not quite certain how to describe this, because I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone talk about it in specific terms. But one of my favorite things in books/movies is dialogue that is meaningful and actually tailored to the story. And I don’t just mean dialogue that goes beyond the realms of small talk—I also mean things like inside jokes, catchphrases, pertinent questions, etc.!
Like what I mentioned above about the continuity in the characters’ voices and how they were tailored to their personalities, Hallmark has done a fabulous job at tailoring the actual words to the story! Characters from past episodes/movies are brought up, specific quotes are repeated, nicknames are reused. Sure, it takes a bit to keep track of everything, but it’s worth it in the end when your dialogue flows as smoothly and naturally as a real-life conversation!
How Hallmark did it: They stayed continuous. From the episodes of When Calls the Heart, which are literally back-to-back and always include a recap, to the movies of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, which sometimes have two-to-three years between installments, Hallmark is always continuous. They kept track of characters—even the minor ones from only an episode or two—and made sure to bring them up in conversations. They were aware of the themes and stuck with them. They allowed the storyline to impact the characters’ discussions, emotions, and actions.
For an unrelated example, Hallmark’s A Perfect Bride film duology stuck with the theme of perfection. In the first film, the hero Nick’s fiancee wanted her everything about wedding to be, well, perfect—including the groom. Naturally, those expectations were entirely too far-fetched, and the wedding fell through. But when the second movie came around, Hallmark stayed true to the characters and their situation and let the Nick’s ex-fiancee’s decisions influence how he and his new fiancee, Molly, moved forward. They were constantly quipping about how their wedding could be good, but not perfect, and they avoided even saying the word! This theme played out even more, and it was so fun from a writer’s perspective to see how the screenwriters made that unfold so effortlessly, especially just through their dialogue!
Another moment I love is when Oliver and Shane have a bit of a spat . . . but they use the context of their current case at the Dead Letter Office in reference to themselves!
How you can do it: Keep track of your characters, scenes, and previous conversations—even if that means making a list or two! (Can never have too many lists, in my opinion. *winks*) Be aware of what your themes are and how they will continue to unfold throughout the story. Focus on how the plot/premise affects the characters and influences what they say, do, think, and feel.
I highly recommend reading over the last scene or two you wrote before you move on to the next one. Consider it your “Previously On…” moment, and let the story linger on your mind as you write it. Remember important aspects of previous books, too, and how characters could still be joking—or arguing—about them months later!
For some quick examples, whenever my characters do something impulsive or stupid, they say they “did an Elliot” or “Ellioted” the situation, in reference to my notoriously impulsive character—you guessed it—Elliot. And my heroine Rina always brings up her quartermaster Keaton’s role in an attempted mutiny whenever she’s miffed with him or feels like teasing him. (Even though he was only pretending to go along with it, there’s still a few hard feelings, of course.)
There’s something about being specific and intentional in your dialogue that makes the story so much more authentic!
Speaking of intentionality (which my writing software says is not a word) . . . Hallmark has learned the hard way to make every moment count. Their movies and TV series are often short, compacting an entire romance into 90 minutes, let alone countless conversations and character interactions.
But there’s never a dull moment in a Hallmark movie; there’s always something going on or being said that moves the characters’ relationship forward! Just as their growth is never stagnant, their conversations are purposeful and intentional. No time for small talk here!
And as important as small talk and fluff can be in fiction (they really aid character development), intentionality is key. Every interaction should do something, whether that’s twist the plot, spur the character on, or provide key insight to your characters, world, etc.
How Hallmark did it: They kept their focus on the task at hand. With time constraints, there simply isn’t time to get caught up in random conversations or monotonous scenes, so they—and their characters—stayed on track and kept the story progressing in some way at all times!
Try watching any episode of When Calls the Heart, and you’ll find characters constantly asking questions or bringing up subjects that are pertinent to the plot. Same goes for Signed, Sealed, Delivered, in which every scene is either focused on their dead letter case, developing the characters’ relationships, or one of the few side plots! Even a standalone movie is a great example of how every moment has a purpose and contributes to the story (most of the time, the romance) in some way!
How you can do it: The first and last step to being intentional with every scene or interaction is actually the same—edit. If you write a line of dialogue that has nothing to do with what’s going on, delete it and try again. If you read back over a scene that’s just fluff and no substance, cut it. If you have a few paragraphs of unnecessary rambling, shorten it and make your point in a sentence or two instead.
Of course, staying focused while you write makes editing a lot easier. Keep an outline of your scenes or, if you’re a pantser like me, brainstorm what should happen and how important it is to your story before you get started on the next scene!
And don’t forget to stay balanced. You’ll need a few more moments of fluff than a Hallmark movie, and those moments can be very beneficial for character/plot development and overall reader experience. Just keep in mind that it has to contribute to your story, so balance anything extra with moments that really move the plot along!
So, the next time your mom forces you to sit through a Hallmark movie with her, pay attention to how the character interactions play out! Watch how the actors’ expressions and movements bring their dialogue to life; focus on how each character’s voice stands out; listen to their inside jokes and references to past movies/episodes; and take note of the purpose behind each scene!
You’ll find that your character interactions are stronger, more meaningful, and easier to write when you utilize nonverbal communication, craft unique character voices, tailor the dialogue to your story, and are intentional about every moment!
Come back next Wednesday to hear another Springtime in Surrey author share lessons learned from writing through creative difficulties.
Hi, I'm Rachel! I'm the author of the posts here at ProseWorthy. Thanks for stopping by!