The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue – Part 3

One of my clients, a man who hopes to become a successful novelist, recently told me that his favorite writers are Pat Conroy, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, and Nelson DeMille.

I was glad to hear it. Those four authors cover a wide range of writing styles. During the conversation with my client, it became clear that he not only reads novels by these authors, but he thinks about the novels and the writing techniques that have made these authors so successful.

You should be doing this, too. By exposing yourself to variety in your reading habits, and by paying attention to how successful authors work their craft, you’ll be able to find your own writing voice and, hopefully, your own success.

Speaking of successful authors . . .

Block vs. Burke

In my recent blog posts about dialogue, I mentioned one of my favorite writers, Lawrence Block. I especially like Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Scudder is a private investigator who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic. He usually has serious personal problems to resolve while tracking down murderers, kidnappers, and other appropriately evil antagonists. The dialogue in these novels is typically quick back-and-forth lines that give the reader little in terms of physical setting and visual hits on the characters as they interact.

Another author I like is James Lee Burke. Like Lawrence Block, Burke has written a series about a private investigator. This man’s name is Dave Robicheaux, and he lives and works in the New Orleans area. There are a lot of similarities between Block’s character Matthew Scudder and Burke’s character Dave Robicheaux. Both are private investigators. Both are ex-cops. Both are recovering alcoholics. Both are intelligent and introspective. Both often have relationship problems. Both are good at solving murders.

With all those similarities in their stories and main characters, you might think that Burke and Block would naturally adapt similar styles in how they use dialogue.

Wrong.

Below is an excerpt from Lawrence Block’s novel A Long Line of Dead Men. If it looks familiar, that’s because I included this excerpt in my blog post of February 10, 2014.

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?”

In my earlier post, I made the point that this kind of sparse dialogue works for Block because he writes murder mysteries, and his readers don’t need a lot of physical description of surroundings and characters.

Does that mean anyone writing murder mysteries should use dialogue in the same way as Block?

Nope. It just means that Block has the option of using dialogue in this way.

Compare the excerpt above to the following excerpt from James Lee Burke’s novel A Stained White Radiance.

“You got somet’ing on your mind, Dave?” Batist asked.

He had a head like a cannonball; a pair of surplus navy dungarees hung on his narrow hips, and his wash-torn undershirt looked like strips of white rag on his massive coal-black chest and back.

“No, not really.”

He nodded, put a dry cigar in his mouth, and looked out the window at a tangle of dead trees and hyacinths floating past us in the bayou’s current.

“It ain’t bad to have somet’ing on your mind, no,” he said. “It’s bad when you don’t tell nobody.”

“What do you say we season the chickens?”

“She gonna be all right. You gonna see. That’s what they got all them doctors for.”

“I appreciate it, Batist.”

I saw Alafair walk down through the pecan trees from the house with Tripod on his chain. She was in third grade now, a little bit fat across the stomach, so that her old gold-and purple LSU T-shirt, with a smiling Mike the Tiger on it, exposed her navel and the top of her elastic-waisted jeans. She had shiny black hair cut in bangs, skin that stayed tan year-round, wide-set Indian teeth, and a smile that was so broad it made her dark eyes squint almost completely shut. Nowadays, when I would pick her up, she felt heavy and compact in my arms, full of energy and play and expectation.

But three years ago, when I pulled her from a crashed and submerged plane out on the salt, one piloted by a Lafayette priest who was transporting illegal refugees from El Salvador, her lungs had been filled with water, her eyes dilated with terror as we rose in a rush of bubbles toward the Gulf’s surface, her little bones as thin and frail as a bird’s.

Tripod thumped out on the dock, rattling his chain across the board planks behind him.

“Dave, you left the bag of rabbit food on top of the hutch. Tripod threw it all over the yard,” Alafair said. Her face was beaming.

“You think that’s funny, little guy?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, and grinned again.

“Batist says you brought Tripod down to the bait shop yesterday and he got into the hard-boiled eggs.”

Her face became vague and quizzical.

“Tripod did that?” she said.

“Do you know anyone else who would wash a hardboiled egg in the bait tank?”

She looked across the bayou speculatively, as though the answer to a profound mystery lay among the branches of the cypress trees. Tripod zigzagged back and forth on his chin, sniffing the smell of fish in the dock.

I rubbed the top of Alafair’s head. Her hair was already warm from the sunlight.

“How about a fried pie, little guy?” I said, and winked at her. “But you and Tripod show some discretion with Batist.”

“Show what?”

“Keep that coon away from Batist.”

Notice how Burke furnishes that scene with rich, interesting details of physical setting, how he uses the scene to bring in background information, and how he shows, through their actions and dialogue, these three important characters and their relationships to one another. He could have written a few lines of narrative to tell the reader how the narrator Dave Robicheaux feels about his adopted daughter Alafair, how he’s careful not to damage her self-esteem, and how freely they interact, but it’s so much more effective showing them together in a scene.

Burke brings a lot more of the surroundings into his dialogue scenes than Block. One reason is because the environment in Burke’s novels (New Orleans area) offers more colorful variety than the environment in Block’s novels (New York City). Mostly, though, it’s a matter of choice. James Lee Burke is particularly skilled at working details of physical setting into his scenes in an interesting and meaningful way. Block may have that gift, too—and in fact I’ve seen a few examples of rich physical settings in his novels. But he has chosen to go a different route with his scenes of dialogue, and it works.

How Grisham Does It

Below is an excerpt from John Grisham’s novel The Testament. His scenes of dialogue are fleshed out beyond what Block offers, but much less than Burke’s. Take a look at how he sets the stage, then lets the characters work through the dialogue with occasional reminders of the surroundings.

After a dinner of thick steaks in mushroom sauce, Josh Stafford and Tip Durban retired to the den, where a fire roared. A different butler, a Mexican in a white jacket and starched jeans, served them very old single-malt Scotch from Mr. Phelan’s cabinet. Cuban cigars were ordered. Pavarotti sang Christmas songs on a distant stereo.

“I have an idea,” Josh said as he watched the fire. “We have to send someone to find Rachel Lane, right?”

Tip was in the midst of a lengthy draw from his cigar, so he only nodded.

“And we can’t just send anyone. It has to be a lawyer; someone who can explain the legal issues. And it has to be someone from our firm because of confidentiality.”

His jaws filled with smoke, Tip kept nodding.

“So who do we send?”

Tip exhaled slowly, through both his mouth and his nose, and smoke boiled across his face and drifted upward. “How long will it take?” he finally asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s not a quick trip. Brazil’s a big country, almost as big as the lower forty-eight. And we’re talking jungles and mountains. These people are so remote they’ve never seen a car.”

“I’m not going.”

“We can hire local guides and such, but it still might take a week or so.”

“Don’t they have cannibals down there?”

“No.”

“Anacondas?”

“Relax, Tip. You’re not going.”

“Thanks.”

“But you see the problem, don’t you? We have sixty lawyers, all busy as hell and swamped with more work than we can possibly do. None of us can suddenly drop everything and go find this woman.”

“Send a paralegal.”

Josh didn’t like that idea. He sipped his Scotch and puffed his cigar and listened to the flames pop in the fireplace. “It has to be a lawyer,” he said, almost to himself.

The butler returned with fresh drinks. He inquired about dessert and coffee, but the guests already had what they wanted.

“What about Nate?” Josh asked when they were alone again.

It was obvious Josh had been thinking about Nate all along, and this slightly irritated Tip. “You kidding?” he said.

“No.”

They pondered the idea of sending Nate for a while, each working past their initial objections and fears. Nate O’Riley was a partner, a twenty-three-year man who was, at the moment, locked away in a rehab unit in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of D.C. In the past ten years, he had been a frequent visitor to rehab facilities, each time drying out, breaking habits, growing closer to a higher power, working on his tan and tennis game, and vowing to kick his addictions once and for all. And while he swore that each crash was the last one, the final descent to rock bottom, each was always followed by an even harder fall. Now, at the age of forty-eight, he was broke, twice divorced, and freshly indicted for income tax evasion. His future was anything but bright.

“He used to be an outdoor type, didn’t he?” Tip asked.

“Oh yeah. Scuba diving, rock climbing, all that crazy stuff. Then the slide began and he did nothing but work.”

The slide had begun in his mid-thirties, at about the time he put together an impressive string of large verdicts against negligent doctors. Nate O’Riley became a star in the medical malpractice game, and also began drinking heavily and using coke. He neglected his family and became obsessive about his addictions—big verdicts, booze, and drugs. He somehow balanced both, but was always on the edge of disaster. Then he lost a case, and fell off the cliff for the first time. The firm hid him in a designer spa until he was sufficiently dried out, and he made an impressive comeback. The first of several.

“When does he get out?” Tip asked, no longer surprised by the idea and liking it more and more.

“Soon.”

But Nate had become a serious addict. He could stay clean for months, even years, but he always crashed. The chemicals ravaged his mind and body. His behavior became quite bizarre, and the rumors of his craziness crept through the firm and ultimately spread through die lawyers’ network of gossip.

Almost four months earlier, he had locked himself in a motel room with a bottle of rum and a sack of pills in what many of his colleagues viewed as a suicide attempt.

Josh committed him for the fourth time in ten years. “It might be good for him,” Tip said. “You know, to get away for a while.”

Besides the dialogue itself, you may have noticed how Grisham worked background information into that scene, fitting the relevant details in and around the dialogue.

By now you’ve seen several examples of how you can employ the important tool of dialogue in your novel or narrative nonfiction book.

I hope you also see why it’s important to read a variety of books and authors, and while you’re at it, pay attention to how they use tools like dialogue. When you come across scenes that you especially like, take the time to type them into your computer so you can review them from time to time. Seeing how other writers use tools like dialogue will help you become a better writer.