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Dialogue: The Art of Keeping it On Point by Helen Fields

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Helen Fields

Helen Fields

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Crime writing lives or dies on the quality of its dialogue. It’s actually easier to forgive bad dialogue on TV or at the cinema because your senses have other things to get on with – sounds, visuals, popcorn. Readers have only your dialogue to bring a character to life and this opens up the possibility of three major hazards that need to be avoided.

  • Clichés – These will not only slow your pace down, more often than not they will cause your reader to close your book and move on to something fresher and more real. Clichés are harmful because they abruptly drag your reader out of their willing suspension of disbelief. As a reader, you’re suddenly thinking about where you’ve heard that before…or how often you’ve heard that before. It suggests either lazy writing or a lack of imagination. It’s easier to slip in the odd cliché than you might think, but it’s something to be aware of in the editing phase.
  • Caricatures – First of all, if you’re writing police procedurals, or even psychological thrillers, there are going to be some very well established similar characters on the shelves. Let’s face it – it really has all been done. The key to avoiding stepping over the line from having a character type in your book to having a caricature in your book, lies in how well you make that character your own. Your hard bitten detective doesn’t have to drink scotch. Perhaps he only pretends to drink scotch in front of the squad, but then goes home and makes himself a peanut butter and caramel milk shake. Live their lives in your head. You bring their personalities to the fore through dialogue, so think about whether or not your character has an particular speech patterns that define them. I don’t mean accent. You have to be very careful with that. Suggest it, establish it with the reader, then move on. But dialogue is something that – like your friends and family – are specific to each individual. Do the tend to waffle? Are the brief, almost staccato? Do they have a tendency not to directly answer questions? You have to hear each character’s voice in your head when writing dialogue, and it has to be distinct. It’s a regular criticism of even well written books that too many of the characters ‘seemed’ the same. To me, that suggests that the writer wasn’t hearing each voice distinctly as they wrote the dialogue.
  • Over-writing conversations. Don’t start at the beginning and end at the end of every conversation. Dialogue has to be interesting and purposeful, but this is one area where it’s necessary to remember NOT to try to make it absolutely real. The bluster, ums, ahs, additions, fluff we put into our conversations have no place in a crime novel (or any novel, really). When editing, ask yourself this. What was the point of that conversation? What did my characters learn/what did the reader learn? Did the dialogue BOTH move the plot forward AND fill out my character in the reader’s head? (It should do both, and if it doesn’t, you’re missing a trick).

Properly used, dialogue is your most useful tool in crime. Dialogue can be creepy, deeply creepy. It may be the best way to bring your antagonist to life! Your characters can sing words, scream words, turn horrific scenes into bizarre little children’s rhymes, pass each other notes, shout in someone else’s face, ask themselves questions in a mirror. It is your fastest and most effective way of both describing action AND painting a picture of the scene AS WELL AS telling us about a character in a single line if you’re clever about it. Consider this sentence of dialogue:

“Move one single muscle, my love, and I’ll have shoved all eight inches of this blade into your neck before you can switch on the bedroom light.”

It sets the scene. It’s scary – the sort of scenario we’d all dread finding ourself in. More than that, we know our potential victim is in her bedroom in the dark. We know he or she is reaching for the light switch. We know there is a knife at his/her throat. We know the threat of attack is imminent. We also take from the tone that the antagonist is scary, threatening, nasty, slightly patronising (from the use of “my love”) and we know that our victim is about to make a choice that will either make things markedly worse or comply. All that from one line of dialogue. If you’d put all of that explanation into the narrative, it would have taken the length of this paragraph. Worse still, the drama of the moment would have been lost in descriptive length.

So when you’re editing, ask yourself what each line of your dialogue achieves. It should be multi-purpose. It should be evocative or scene-setting, as well as providing explanations or humour. When you read other people’s work, look at how effectively they use dialogue. It’s a useful means of weighing up how well you’re doing with your own.

(c) Helen Fields, July 2017

About Perfect Prey:

The second in the terrifying DI Callanach crime series. Fans of M.J. Arlidge will be hooked from the very first page.

In the midst of a rock festival, a charity worker is sliced across the stomach. He dies minutes later. In a crowd of thousands, no one saw his attacker. The following week, the body of a primary school teacher is found in a dumpster in an Edinburgh alley, strangled with her own woollen scarf.

DI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach have no motive and no leads – until around the city, graffitied on buildings, words appear describing each victim.

It’s only when they realise the words are appearing before rather than after the murders, that they understand the killer is announcing his next victim…and the more innocent the better.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Helen can be found on Twitter @Helen_Fields for up to date news and information. A former barrister, Helen now writes Scottish set crime. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and two dogs.

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