Saturday, March 21, 2015

What Did She Say?


by Chester D. Campbell

More to the point, was what she said worth saying? Dialogue can be a valuable tool for the mystery writer, but poorly done it can be a major stumbling block.

The usual advice for handling dialogue is to make it sound natural. That’s true, but far from the whole story. People can be boring when they talk, but dialogue can’t. In her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden says:

“Sadly, much of what passes for dialogue in the typical submission is little more than chitchat and data dumping.”

If a character has a long story to tell, it’s best to start it with a paragraph of dialogue and follow up with exposition. You can summarize the story without straining to make it sound part of a conversation.

Sometimes we get too wrapped up in our own thinking and don’t realize that what we have a character say doesn’t fit the conversational mode. A critique group colleague or a first reader can spot these and warn, “I don’t think he’d talk like that.”

Robert B. Parker is one of my favorite authors for dialogue. His short, snappy style is perfect for a mystery. It’s good for raising tension and creating conflict. Here’s a snippet from School Days with Spenser talking to a small town police chief:

“Optics are amazing, aren’t they?” I said. “We can see out fine through the tint, but people outside can’t really see as much.”

“Shut up,” Cromwell said.

The eyes behind the rimless glasses narrowed some more. I squinted back at him.

“Hard to see, isn’t it,” I said, “with your eyes three quarters shut.”

“This is your last chance,” Cromwell said finally.

“It is?”

“After this, it gets very rough.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s when.”

Parker is not averse to throwing in an adverb once in a while. I do it rarely. He sticks to he said, she said, or he asked, she asked for attribution. It appears to be the preferred style for editors, and anything else should be used with caution.

My books are heavy with dialogue, which appears to be the case with most P.I. novels. In Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville says:

“A good example of moving the story forward with dialogue is found in the private eye novel. The P.I. gathers his information by moving from one suspect to the next, and the plot builds as he moves.”

That is the key to dialogue. It should move the plot and develop character. It can add to the creation of tension and suspense. And, occasionally, as with Parker’s Spenser, it can provide a breather by That is the key to dialogue. It should move the plot and develop character. It can add to the creation of tension and suspense. And, occasionally, as with Parker’s Spenser, it can provide a breather by making us laugh or grin like a kid in a sack race.

This is one area of writing where it pays to be a voyeur. When you’re sitting in a restaurant, shopping in the mall, waiting in line somewhere, listen to the conversation around you. You’ll not only pick up ideas on how real people talk, you’re likely to hear some good lines you can use in your novel.

I’ve grabbed snatches of conversation here and there that included some doozies. Here’s one I’m still looking for a place to use:

“I’d offer my child $10,000 on a house if they’d elope.”

Like everything else about writing, have fun with your dialogue. If you do, I’m sure the reader will have run reading it.

1 comment:

Marja said...

Wonderful post, Chester. Dialogue can make such a difference, and yes, it can further the story.