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Anything You Say... Tips for Effective Dialogue
by Stephen D. Rogers

Return to Writing Mysteries · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

While your characters have the right to remain silent, chances are they won't. That's good. Dialogue is among the most important aspects of mystery writing. Whether you're writing cozy or PI, amateur detective or police procedural, most mysteries are solved by asking questions and listening to the answers.

Suspects talk. Witnesses talk. Experts talk. Investigators talk. Sometimes it seems that everyone has something to say.

And Nothing But the Truth...

When asked a question, there are a number of possible responses.

One can tell the truth. Witnesses usually try to explain what they saw and heard to the best of their ability. Experts (lab technicians, Registry employees, medical staff) are usually interested in conveying information. Suspects want to clear their name as soon as possible.

One can lie. While the killer has an obvious reason to lie, many characters may have cause to manipulate the truth. The truth may be embarrassing. The truth may require confessing to a lessor crime. The truth may simply be none of anybody's business.

One can be mistaken. Did the loud noise occur at two in the morning or three? What color jacket was the man wearing? When did her behavior first begin to change? Realistically, these questions can be very difficult to answer. We don't really pay all that much attention to the world around us and -- more importantly -- we forget the details rather quickly. Characters can be just as human.

One can misdirect. While law enforcement and legal professionals may refer to an actual list of questions, other people can usually be distracted from a touchy subject. One can ignore the question and introduce a new topic, answer a question that seems related, or simply blurt out something that steers the conversation in another direction.

One can misunderstand. People don't like to appear dumb. If they don't understand a question, more often than not they'll guess what it means and answer appropriately.

The average Q&A session contains a mixture of the above. No one lies all the time and few people always tell the truth. The investigator's job is to sift through all the words to find the golden nuggets, whether they be insights or falsehoods.

Whenever possible, most characters are going to try to remain honest. Lying is hard work. One must constantly review each statement to see if it contradicts the lie. A harmless lie, thrown in for little reason, may cause the speaker to lose credibility. What else was fabricated? Is something significant being hidden? Should we dig into the opened can of worms and investigate further?

The only thing more amazing than how easily some people can lie is how often someone will confess to committing a crime in the course of a normal conversation.

Talk the Talk

Characters should always be differentiated by the way they talk. Does the person use long sentences or short, speak grammatically, use colorful language?

Furthermore, within the mystery genre especially, characters come from a wide range of backgrounds. Imagine the scene where the alleged drug dealer, his lawyer, and the arresting police officer sit down to discuss the whereabouts of a partner. There's a chance that they might as well be speaking different languages.

Beware of using too much technical jargon or slang that may go out of style. You want to give the impression of how the characters speak, not record them verbatim.

If you plan to write about cops, talk to cops. The same is true of lawyers, medical people, and (if possible) the criminal element. For an example of terminology, a police officer interviews a witness and interrogates a suspect.

Are You Calling Me Funny?

The wise-cracking private investigator. The sassy amateur detective. The locker room banter. Humor breaks the tension and gives the reader an opportunity to relax just before the heat gets turned up another notch.

Now is your chance to say all the comebacks you thought of too late, the cutting remarks you didn't have the nerve to utter, the jokes you would tell if only you were funnier.

Minor characters serve well as lightning rods for the protagonist's wit because there is little danger of backlash. Beware inappropriate barbs aimed at superiors and others who could squash your character flat. Don't expect comic-routine dialogue to carry the story. Mystery readers are expecting a mystery.

Beware the Talking Head

You've written two pages of sparkling dialogue filled with tension, red herrings, and humor. The only problem is that the pages are nothing but dialogue with the occasional attribution thrown in so the reader can follow who's speaking.

Try interspersing dialogue with character action and background noises. Remember that people also communicate using body language. Does the person shift every time Tuesday is mentioned? Is there eye contact?

While pages of dialogue do not kill the momentum the way dense passages of description can, you want to vary the pace and give the reader places to recover and reflect.

There is also the danger of not painting a sufficient picture. While the reader will fill in the blanks, the reader's sense of scene may contradict your commentary three pages later when your characters finally come up for air.

A Final Word

Dialogue, like everything else, should only remain in your manuscript if it furthers the plot or exposes character. Delete pointless meandering and redundant statements. Summarize earlier conversations or simply state, "I told her what he said."

For more information, watch reality-based shows or documentaries about law enforcement to get a taste of how people who will appear in your mystery might talk. Spend time at a police station and in a courtroom so you can listen to the different interactions. Study how comics build a series of jokes to reach a topper.

Among the most popular of the mystery writers are those who write series involving a set cast of characters, characters who are defined by what they say and the way they say it. Or did I already mention that?

Find Out More...

Writing-World.com: Writing Dynamic Dialogue

Copyright © 2002 Stephen D. Rogers
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Stephen D. Rogers has published mysteries in magazines ranging from Plots With Guns to Woman's World, multiple anthologies, and several non-mystery markets. He is a graduate of the Framingham Police Department's Citizen Policy Academy and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Visit his website at http://www.stephendrogers.com).


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