Guest Post by Mark Stevens
author of The Melancholy Howl
I was surprised—believe me.
The reviews and blurbs arrived in August, ahead of the October launch for the The Melancholy Howl, the fifth entry in The Allison Coil Mystery Series.
In addition to some fine commentary on the story itself, another theme emerged.
About my dialogue.
“Stellar,” said Kirkus Reviews of the conversational bits.
“Pitch perfect,” said Paul Doiron (The Mike Bowditch Mystery Series).
“Razor sharp,” said Christine Carbo (The Glacier Park Mystery Series).
Well, I do care about dialogue. But, then, I care about the whole story, too. (I assume all writers care about every word.)
Dialogue is special.
Dialogue, for many readers, is where the character first comes to life. Where would books be without a memorable line or two from our hero?
But what a funny, odd deal. Those words are “spoken” simply because us writers put quotes around them and attribute them to one of our characters. Our readers “hear” these words. Suddenly, our characters have voice.
Um, they are still only words on the page.
“Um, they are still only words on the page,” said writer dude from Colorado, U.S.A.
What’s the difference?
On the page, dialogue offers relief. At least, good dialogue in my humble opinion should cough up some white space on the page. The eyes go ahhhhh … a break!
And the ears lean in, what is so important that these people will speak? To each other?
Dialogue offers a chance to show how your characters think, how they interface with the world.
If I knew the secret to Writing Perfect Dialogue, I would make a neat little list of checkboxes and you could follow the formula.
But, like those prose sections, there’s no formula. Writing is no paint-by-numbers art.
As a writer, have you ever headed out the door in the morning—to the bus, to work, to a party, to a bar, to your weekly bowling league and you thought to yourself, I am going to keep careful track of the way people talk in real life and then I will translate that to the page.
Have you ever thought that? Done that?
It’s a terrible idea.
The fiction writer, in the vast majority of cases, is not a documentarian. Again, just one guy’s opinion here.
Ordinary life chit-chat is not exciting stuff for the page. The stakes aren’t high enough. I think part of writing good dialogue is deciding what scenes need dialogue and what scenes only require straight exposition and summary. You are using dialogue to get at the essence of what’s being communicated. Your dialogue is like a creamy sauce that’s been reduced to an intense state of flavor over time.
Skip real life. Read some Elmore Leonard. Or Jeffrey Eugenides. Or George V. Higgins.
Good dialogue (well, your whole novel) requires conflict. Even between friends, the exchange of information should never be too easy. Between antagonist and protagonist, of course, the exchange should make a reader’s pulse rise.
And it’s not only the “spoken” words that need to have flow and contain variety. It’s the little beats, the opportunity that dialogue gives to you (the writer) to drum rhythm into the scene. Pauses. Observations. A touch of sizzle. Those beats lend the scene veracity. Don’t forget, body language is being “spoken” too.
If your writer’s eye can see unusual motions and movements, you can sprinkle these in between your speakers’ thoughts. If your writer’s mind smells unusual aromas or sees odd shapes or colors, let your character sense these also as they are making their point or trying to squeeze the truth out of a murder suspect.
As real people here on planet earth, we never go into a state of suspended animation when we talk to each other so dialogue is an opportunity for you, the writer, to choreograph your characters as they circle each other (or get ready for combat).
Okay, an attempt at a list of things to keep in mind. Consider them suggestions:
Characters should not reply directly to what’s being said—even if they are asked Point Blank. They should deflect and, at best, answer indirectly. (That’s because each character has his or her agenda, needs, wants, and desires.)
Minimize complete sentences; it ain’t natural.
Avoid ping-pong back-and-forth repetitiveness. (Yawn!)
Each line of dialogue should reveal character or move the plot forward. (Otherwise it’s a wasted opportunity. If your dialogue doesn’t do that, cut!)
Jump into the middle of the thought. Jump out early. (You already do this with scenes, right?)
Vary the length of dialogue from one character to the next. Intersperse internal thoughts or action to break it up.
Never use dialogue to dump mountains of info on the reader.
Surprise us! Twist it, turn it. Show us some character—good or bad. People make mistakes when they talk (and not only when they’re drunk).
Whenever possible, but without overdoing it—
Interrupt! Have your characters cut each other off.
A writer pal (the aforementioned Christine Carbo) told me good dialogue is like a great guitar solo in a song. It’s got to shine. It’s got to go in an unusual direction, bend the reader’s ear. And it shouldn’t go on too long.
More than anything, you have to feel it.
The Melancholy Howl is out now
The son of two librarians, Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in the suburbs of Boston and from Principia College in Illinois. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles; as a City Hall reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver; as a national field producer for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (PBS) and as an education reporter for The Denver Post.
After journalism, he worked in school public relations before starting his own public relations and strategic communications business. He lives in Denver. Mark and his wife have two grown daughters.
Mark is currently president of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America and hosts a regular podcast, The Rocky Mountain Writer, for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.