Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this special Mystery Month installment of our Publishing U series, library favorite and multiple award winner Catriona McPherson (Quiet Neighbors, 2016) shares her secrets for writing dialogue that keeps readers turning pages.
The bad news about dialogue is, while dull description is skippable and flat narration still tells you what’s happening, clunky speeches kill a book stone dead. Tin-eared, unrealistic dialogue shouts that these people aren’t real—so it would be dumb to care about them.
The good news about bad dialogue is that it usually stinks because of one of a few fixable problems with form, content, and/or purpose.
The Two Purposes of Dialogue
Dialogue breathes life into a story. It breaks up the prose and is refreshing to the reader’s eye and brain. (When you’re half-thinking about switching off your bedside lamp, I’ll bet you never close the book after turning a page and seeing dialogue. You read on. Bet you.)
In addition, what dialogue does better than any other kind of writing is reveal character. It’s the ultimate show-don’t-tell. The words a character speaks are how we get to know them and decide what we think of them, just as in real life. And—just as in real life—the words coming out of their mouths are worth more than the words of a third party (in this case, the author).
But dialogue has a second purpose inside the world of the story, related to the characters’ points-of-view. What is that purpose? Well, just as in the real world, it’s hardly ever to exchange information—or at least, not only that. It’s to connect, to cement relationships, to kick back, to impress, to seduce, to intimidate, to avoid awkward silences . . . you get the idea.
A good rule of thumb is that, in every passage of dialogue where information is exchanged, at least one of these other things is being done by every character. In short: everyone has an agenda.
A special case of purposeful talk inside crime fiction is the interview or interrogation. Here more than anywhere, every character’s agenda is crucial. It’s convenient for the writer to have a witness who turns up, answers the questions, and leaves, but it’s bad dialogue. If your witness is going to do that, you at least have to know why. Is she a suck-up? If so, in what other ways would that come through?
Where are we so far? We’ve got characters revealing themselves through agenda-riddled talk that brings the story alive. But what does this kind of dialogue actually look like?
The word that springs immediately to mind when describing bad dialogue is stilted. Luckily, it’s easy to tell when dialogue is stilted: when you read it aloud, it doesn’t sound like someone talking. It might be too grammatically complex, or simply too long.
“People talk like this. Short bursts.”
“And then they stop?”
“And someone else has a go?”
“You got it.”
People tend neither to express themselves using nested clauses that typify formal written style, nor to continue for sustained periods of time. Well, some of them do. But in life, when one party hogs the floor for too long and shows off her English degree, we stop listening. In books, we skim. Boring is boring.
But if you go all the way to the other end of what linguists call “the speech/writing continuum,” your dialogue will be perfectly observed . . . and completely unreadable. When transcribed precisely, real-life talk isn’t just not stilted. It’s stiltless. Also legless, headless, and clueless.
A special subcategory of info-dump is the crime against
fiction known as “Say, remember when . . .?”
Fortunately, there’s a happy medium: a bit of discontinuity, a smattering of lax grammar, some interruptions, some trailing off into silence, some places where a question needs to be asked twice because the other character has an agenda that supersedes answering it. All of these things make dialogue lifelike and naturalistic.
For writers of crime fiction, a measure of this mild anarchy comes in very handy. Two or more people with different agendas, talking with various degrees of fluency, can create a conversation that’s a wonderful place to hide clues.
Where are we now? We’ve got our guy, revealing his character with his modestly ungrammatical bursts of agenda-riddled speech. What can he use it to say?
Well, anything, obviously. But there are pitfalls.
If the classic failing in form is stilted dialogue, the classic failing in content is the info-dump, where a character backs his brain up to someone’s ears and tips out industrial loads of facts. This is bad even when the facts are crucial; it’s unforgivable when the facts are merely interesting tidbits from the author’s research that she can’t help sharing.
Here again, reading it out loud helps a lot. If you can’t remember all the facts in one speech without peeping, no one but a bore would say it for real.
A special subcategory of info-dump worth mentioning is the crime against fiction known as “Say, remember when . . .?” It’s tempting, but you cannot have a character remind her listener of something that listener knows, so that we find out, too. No exceptions. And for the love of God, if you write half a telephone conversation, you can’t have the one we’re listening to repeat the words of the one we’re not.
However, in crime fiction, sometimes a stock-take is a good idea halfway through a case, and a conversation isn’t a bad way to do it. To stop it turning into a “Say remember when,” though, either all the characters present need to want it, or they need to be disagreeing and trying to persuade each other.
And so if you’re at the planning stage of a new crime series, remember there’s a very good reason Holmes has his Watson, Myron his Win, and Vera her Joe.
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Catriona McPherson is the author of the multi-award-winning Dandy Gilver series of preposterous 1920s detective stories (A Deadly Measure of Brimstone, 2014), set in her native Scotland. She also writes darker, contemporary stand-alones, including The Child Garden, a 2016 finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Currently making her home in California, McPherson lives on 20 scruffy acres with a black cat and a scientist and writes almost full-time, except when she’s killing rattlesnakes with a shovel.