Your dialogue sucks.
At least you think so, if you’re like most crime / thriller writers.
Writing crisp, realistic dialogue – even for seasoned vets – is a struggle. It’s like being nervous about public speaking. You convince yourself that you’re gonna bomb before you start.
Even the pros tremble. But they don’t show it when they come on page, because they work hard at polishing their craft.
I’m no seasoned vet when it comes to fiction writing, but dialogue comes naturally for me and that’s something I’ve been complimented on. It’s because I’ve spent hundreds of hours editing tapes and transcripts from police interviews, interrogations, and wiretaps. Now that’s real-life dialogue.
So I want to pass on five things I’ve learned.
Everyone has unique speech. Crooks & cops. Teachers and terrorists. Priests and pundits. It’s our word choice. Our tone. Accent. Education and social background. Pet phrases. In wiretaps, you can pick out the speaker right away from a few words and it’s no different for your readers if you develop characters to be real entities in your mind. Their speech will jump out in print. Let the characters be themselves and the reader will know them.
2. Speech attributes / Dialogue tags.
The golden rule is ‘He said/She said.’ and it’s gospel. The shorter the tags, the better. Never invent cutesy crap like ‘She moaned cunnilingusly’ or ‘He suddenly knew, laxatively.’ Kill the adjectives and adverbs. Go with strong verbs and nouns. Let them do the work. But I think it’s fine to occasionally mix your character’s name in place of ‘He/She’ and let them refer to each other as they naturally would.
Beats are separations between dialogue blocks. They’re vital to give a sense of place, point of view, further the story and set the pace, as well as giving zip to the conversation. Beats replace tags. Spend as much time tweaking beats as scripting dialogue.
4. Foul language.
Swearing is a fact of life. It goes that a NYU PhD would talk different than a Nanaimo Hell’s Angel and it’s crucial – absolutely vital – to be true to your character. A friend recently recommended a Harlan Coban novel. Partway into it, I sensed something was wrong. Coban’s protagonist had to use the F-word – no way around it – and Coban wrote ‘F@#!’ I’m serious! He didn’t have the balls to print it. He lost me, so I put the book down and went the fuck to sleep.
5. Read it. Out loud.
The most important thing you can do. Read it. Out loud. Or get a friend to read it. Out loud. Use voice memo on your smart phone to listen to yourself. Read it out loud. Listen to the words. It has to sound real.
Real for your characters.
Because your readers will sure know an orgasm when it’s fake.
Here’s Chapter 41 from No Witnesses To Nothing where Robin Ghomes, a real Hells Angel, is crossed by Tracy Williams, his money launderer.
Thursday, August 2nd
United States Federal Correctional Complex
Terre Haute, Indiana
“Where’s my fuckin’ money, Tracy!” Ghomes screamed into the phone. “I need my fuckin’ money to pay my fuckin’ lawyer! That slippery cocksucker Sleeman won’t do fuck all without money up front!” He smashed his palm against the thick, riveted-steel door locking him inside a tiny, vomit-green, concrete communications booth, then kicked it hard with a shackled-up, woolen-socked foot.
Three trollish guards eyed Ghomes through a foot-square, Lexan window at the centre of the maximum security United States Penitentiary where Kingpins were held. It also held federal inmates facing execution. They were kept in a nasty quadrant called the Special Confinement Unit, the place where Ghomes might face the end of his days.
“You no longer have money, Robin,” Tracy said, on a disposable cell phone from the aft deck of the Bandazul.
She’d made sure of that. She’d also made sure she was long gone from Vancouver by the time they had this conversation.
“Whut the fuck you mean?”
“Robin. I want you to listen carefully. I am only going to say this once.”
“I have destroyed you financially.”
“I have drained your bank accounts. Your investments no longer exist. I have sold off your stocks, your bonds, and your GIC’s. I have liquidated your bullion. I have also shut down your credit cards and closed your lines of credit. All that cash in the safety deposit vault? It is gone. The same with your valuables in my safe.”
Ghomes gaped at the cinder-block wall.
“Listen further. John has had proceeds of crime forfeitures placed on your properties, vehicles, and material assets. I have given information to the tax people which put you massively in arrears. I have also developed a profile on your credit rating which appears horrible.”
“Whut the fuck you talkin’ about, Tracy!” Ghomes managed a croak.
“You are broke, Robin. Flat busted.”
“You heard me.”
“Fuck you, Tracy! You filthy slut! You get my fuckin’ money right fuckin’ now or my guys’ll come and carve your fuckin’ cunt out!”
“That will not happen, Robin.”
“You know it will. Yer all fucked if I go down.”
“That will not happen either.”
“Yer fuckin’ rights it will!”
“You know that package which you gave to Wiggers?”
Ghomes hesitated. “How you know ‘bout that?”
“You should have been much more careful about who you trusted with such sensitive information. Some of your funds went to purchase that back from him.”
“Yer dead, Tracy.”
“You are at much more risk of that than me. John has released his coded informant file on you to the Nomad chapter.”
Ghomes was the colour of a ghost.
“And I would like you to hear something else.”
Ghomes could not speak.
“I would like you to think back many years to the time when you poured salt on a poor little slug on my parent’s walk. You delighted in its suffering. You forced me to watch and I shuddered in horror. And that night? You know of it. You fucked me when I was defenseless. Now I have done it to you. It is your time to suffer. I have transferred all your wealth through untraceable accounts and I created a philanthropist who has donated it all to charity. The children’s hospital.”
“You Fuckin’ Slut!”
“Rot in hell! You…You… Fucking… Bastard!”
Tracy slammed the cell into the deck. It bounced across the planks, through the rails, spiraling down into the cold, green-black of the Pacific.
She stood, said a silent prayer, and made the sign of the cross.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a free digital copy of No Witnesses To Nothing