The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue – Part 1

I hope you’ve been keeping your toolbox close at hand, and that you reach into it whenever you need a tool to help you breathe life into a character, build tension into a dramatic confrontation, pick up the pace of your story, or give the reader important background information. If you write novels or narrative nonfiction books, characterization, drama, pace, and backstory are all important tools.

I talked about the writer’s toolbox in my January 14, 2014 blog post. My point was that instead of looking at things like characterization and plot as elements in a story, you should view them as tools to be used in crafting your story. It’s more than semantics. When a carpenter arrives at a worksite, he has his own toolbox with things like hammers, saws, and drills. He doesn’t tote these tools around because he wants people to know he’s a carpenter, and he doesn’t wait for the tools to hop out of the toolbox and assert themselves. The carpenter is in charge. He selects the tool he needs for a particular job, and he uses it in the best way to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

Think of your writer’s toolbox in the same way, as something you reach for when you need to accomplish a particular task.

Use Dialogue to Move Your Story Along

One of the most important tools in that toolbox is dialogue. You can use it to develop plot elements with an exchange like this:

“I want Marsh whacked before he testifies,” Wilkins said.

“You got it, boss. I’ll make it look like an accident—”

“No. I want it to be a messy hit. Blood and body parts. I want everyone to know that’s what happens to people that snitch on Dick Wilkins.”

“When’s Marsh supposed to testify?”

“Tuesday morning. Three days from now. Take him out Monday night at his house.”

This brief passage of dialogue gives the reader something new to anticipate in an upcoming scene while adding a new complication to the emerging plot.

Use Dialogue to Tell the Reader About Backstory

Dialogue can also be a good way to get important background information across to the reader. For example:

“We need your testimony,” said the prosecutor. “That’s the only way we’ll put Wilkins behind bars. But I want to be clear. He’s a dangerous man. He’s been running the mob’s operations in Miami for more than ten years. We’re pretty sure he’s responsible for at least twenty murders, either personally or through his orders.”

“You think he might try to kill me?”

“It’s a possibility. That’s why we’ll be giving you police protection during the trial. After that, you’ll probably want to get out of Florida.”

Use Dialogue to Reveal Your Character to the Reader

One of the most common problems in novels I evaluate is that all the characters in the story sound alike. In fact, people are different, and dialogue is one of the most effective ways of illuminating those differences. Think about people you know. They don’t all sound alike, do they? A conversation with a witty, successful, self-confident person is much different from a conversation with a timid person who needs constant reassurance that you agree with what he’s saying.

People are different from one another in real life, and they should be different in your novel. If you have a character who is private, stoic, and observant, that person may stand in the background in scenes and not speak unless spoken to. However, when he does speak, his words are precise and clever, maybe even to a point of bluntness or sarcasm. Another character might be the life of the party and always be making jokes and laughing, even when a situation calls for seriousness and compassion.

Once you’ve decided who you need for your story, make sure the dialogue fits.

Choose the Right Dialogue for Your Story

I recently got a call from an author named Ken. I had just critiqued his fantasy novel, and I had told him that he needed to flesh out his dialogue scenes with more description of the physical setting and more visual hits on the characters as they conversed and interacted. He said he had some questions about that, and the conversation went something like this:

Ken: “Are you familiar with Lawrence Block’s novels?”

Bill: “Sure. He’s a bestselling mystery writer.”

Ken: “Right. I’ve read most of his novels. Block almost never describes the surroundings in scenes of dialogue, and he rarely has a character frown or shrug or look surprised. He just has the bare-bones dialogue. Since he’s a successful novelist, I decided to follow his example in writing the dialogue for my own story. I’ve got an excerpt from one of his novels. Can I email it to you so we can talk about it?”

Bill: “Sure.”

A couple minutes later, Ken’s email clinked into my mailbox with this excerpt from Lawrence Block’s novel A Long Line of Dead Men:

I walked over to Midtown North to look for Durkin. I caught him at his desk, eating a sandwich and drinking bottled iced tea.

“Thomas Cloonan,” I said. “Playwright, part-time cabdriver, shot and killed four years ago, Audubon Avenue and 174th Street, guy they tagged for it never went to trial—”

“Jesus,” he said. “What am I, the central figure in a granny-dumping? You figure me for no short-term memory at all?”

“I just wanted to refresh your memory.”

“It hasn’t had time to get stale. We just talked about the son of a bitch the other day.”

“What did Cloonan do to become a son of a bitch?”

“Not Cloonan, for chrissake. The shooter.” His eyes narrowed in concentration. “Mims,” he said. “How’s that for memory, considering it’s a case I got no reason to give a damn about?”

“You want to try for the first name?”

“Obadiah.”

“Try Eldoniah.”

“Well, hell, I came close enough. What about him?”

“The guy who shot Cloonan was white.”

I gave him what I had. It wasn’t his case—it wasn’t anybody’s case at this stage—but he was too much of a cop not to take an interest, sifting data, proposing and discarding theories.

“Front-seat passenger,” he said. “Who rides up front?”

“In Australia,” I said, “when you get a cab, you automatically sit in front next to the driver.”

“Because the rear springs are shot?”

“Because there’s no class system, and you’re all mates. Getting in back would be a snub.”

“Yeah? What’s the chances you got an Australian shooting cabbies and robbing them?”

“Well, it makes a refreshing change from Norwegians.”

“All that aside, implication’s the shooter’s a friend of the driver, right?”

“Known to him, anyway.”

“Front-seat passenger, meter’s not running, no entry on the log sheet. He had a pickup in Midtown, long haul up to Columbia Presbyterian. How’s the shooter know he’s gonna be there?”

After reading the excerpt, I got back to Ken.

Bill: “You’re right. Block never gives the reader a look at the office or Detective Durkin. Dialogue tags like he said are rare, and visual hits on the characters are almost nonexistent.”

Ken: “That’s my point. If this kind of sparse dialogue works for a bestselling author like Lawrence Block, why won’t it work for me?”

Bill: “It works for Lawrence Block because he writes murder mysteries. It doesn’t work for you because you’re writing a fantasy novel.”

Ken started to ask a question, then paused. “Okay,” he said at last. “I think I get it.”

Bill: “Right. Readers of murder mysteries are willing to forego details of physical setting and character interaction because they’re mostly interested in where the story is going. Who committed the murder, and how is the protagonist going to figure it out? That’s what they want. Readers of fantasy novels are a lot more interested in exotic and fantastical physical settings and colorful characters. They want to see the characters like wizards or goblins in action, and they want to see the surroundings. That’s what they like, and it’s one reason why they read fantasy novels. By modeling your dialogue scenes from Lawrence Block’s writing style, you aren’t giving your readers what they want.”

Ken got the point. He rewrote a few of the dialogue scenes I had mentioned in my critique and sent them to me for review. He had done a nice job of fleshing them out and using them as a way to give his readers a vivid look at the physical setting and characters he’d created for his fantasy novel.

Dialogue is more than just words spoken by the characters in your story. It’s an important tool, and how you use it depends on the kind of novel you’re writing and what your readers want.

Stay tuned for Dialogue – Part 2.