As writers, we often hear “Show Don’t Tell.” And what better way to do so than through realistic dialogue? By realistic I don’t mean the way most people speak, which sounds contradictory I know. But who wants to read the “umms” and “ers” that are used often in everyday conversations? As a youth, I spent much enjoyable time in Italy visiting close relatives. It wasn’t a family meal unless shouting matches occurred, and although no one ever appeared to care who won, I often wondered what the point was. I mean, who knew what the hell the others were saying? Besides the fact that it would sound like nonsense, what would be the point in writing dialogue like that? By this time, you’re probably beginning to wonder if I have any answers to these questions I’m asking. I hope so!
When I wrote my first book, A Twisted Wisdom, I was terrified of writing dialogue. For those that read it, all three of you, then you know it’s based on the story of a mentally ill woman and the ordeals she went through under the mental health care system. I know, you probably think that it doesn’t sound that interesting, but wait until you read my rewrite, I beg you to, Secrets, Lies, and Deception: A Twisted Wisdom. I promise to deliver an exciting roller coaster ride. Shameless plug aside, due to the nature of the book there is a lot of dialogue. It’s called “Talk Therapy” for a reason.
So here we are with Susan, the protagonist, going to see a psychiatrist, not because she wants to, but because her husband Paul made her promise to get help for her depression. Little did they both know! For the dialogue, I did a lot of research on questions that should be asked and what to expect. Since Susan and Paul are close, like my husband and I, for me, the best way to write that portion was to think about our conversations. Here’s an excerpt:
Her eyes twinkled. “But Paul, you didn’t have to get me anything,” Susan gushed.
“Shush and open it.”
“I want to read the card first.” Almost giddy with excitement, she slid it from the envelope. On the front it read: Christmas is the season when you buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money! Susan chuckled with delight. “Isn’t that the truth?”
“Open the card,” he repeated.
Susan opened it and inside he had written, “Love you always, Paul, Nicole, and Michelle.”
Without a word, she kissed him. “Now, open your gift.” By his enthusiastic tone, Susan knew it had to be something special.
“Yes, boss,” she jested. With an awkward grace, she untied the candy cane colored ribbon. Then she saw what was inside, and pulled out a bright red, long-sleeved, warm-looking nightgown.
She stared at him in astonishment. “How did you know I needed one?”
“You mentioned after your first night here that you were freezing at night, in spite of having several blankets. I thought since I can’t be here to keep you warm, I’d give you the next best thing.”
Sound like a conversation you’d have? If not, well, I hate to say it, but maybe you need to dump your other half and find someone you deserve. Okay, so Dr. Phil, I’m not.
What about the types of conversations you’ve never had, and probably don’t want to, you ask? I’ll delve more into character’s voices later, but for now, what works for me is to find their voices and then let them write themselves. Let me see if I can explain. In The Chemist: A Psychological Thriller, Kat, the protagonist and newspaper reporter finds herself in the terrifying situation of having a police detective, Dante as he’s come to be known, questioning her for murder. I thought about her personality and created him. That may sound difficult but draw upon others wording and phrasing; the television shows you’ve watched, your bickering aunt and uncle (yes, we all have them), any source of inspiration. Don’t try and force it, or it will sound stilted. Try to let it flow naturally. Impossible, you say? Nonsense. Relax, have a drink or two, get in your comfort zone, and write. Do you want to know the secret to writing? Write! Anything, everything, whatever you want. Once you feel ready, get inside your characters’ heads and see what happens. Success! Here’s an excerpt from my book:
“Why did you call 911 and report a murder? The cause of death has yet to be determined.”
“What? No foreplay, Detective?” Kat asked coolly.
“Let me repeat myself. Why did you report a murder? Unless you’re the perpetrator, how could you make that statement?”
Kat laughed. “I’m an investigative reporter. I received a call from a man who told me where the body was.”
“So you say. But if this man only gave you the location, why call it a murder?” The Detective said it slowly as if he were talking to someone too stupid to understand. Kat made a point of showing that it didn’t bother her.
“Obviously you weren’t at the same crime scene I was,” Kat smirked, further showing she didn’t care about his attitude.
Detective Russo stared at her as if he were trying to ascertain whether she was telling the truth or not.
She’d had enough. “Fine. I could always lawyer up, and then you wouldn’t get anything from me,” Kat told him with resolve.
“If that’s what you want to do.”
“You don’t want me to do that, so let’s not play games. I told you, I’ll cooperate if you give me an exclusive for the story.”
“Might I remind you that the man chose to call me?”
“And why would he do that?”
“Because I’m a damn good reporter.”
“I’m familiar with your work,” he said with a scowl.
“Not a fan, I take it.” He ignored her statement, which she took as a “No.”
Notice my minimal use of those pesky dialogue tags? It may make the conversations a little easier to follow but the constant use of he said, she said, he declared, etc., slows down the conversation and action. Of course, if there are more than two characters, it’s trickier, but there are ways to handle it. From The Hunter: Will You Be Next?
Detective Bradford crossed the distance between himself and the man in what seemed like an instant and grabbed the camera and deleted the picture.
“Hey, you can’t do that.”
“Bill, did you honestly plan on running the picture of a woman’s body like that for her family and friends to see?” asked the Sheriff.
“Who is this man, Sheriff?”
“He’s from the Herald, Detective Bradford. A weekly paper that serves as our source of news for the area.”
“I’m standing right here, you know.” They just looked at him.
Bill took out his notepad. “You mind answering some questions?”
The Detective looked at Bill like he wanted to punch him, but it was obvious he was holding back his temper.
“You’re trespassing, Bill. I suggest you leave before I have you arrested. Would you like the Sheriff to escort you off my property?” asked Amanda.
Bill looked at Detective Bradford and must have decided it was time to depart.
“That’s fine, Amanda. But I’m going to print something whether you co-operate or not. I’m going now.”
“You better do that as fast as your legs will go if you know what’s good for you.” The expression in the Detective’s eyes made Bill hurry.
But as he ran off, Amanda heard him say: “I’ll be running a special edition tomorrow.”
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t sneak back,” volunteered the Sheriff, who then took off.
“That’s just what we need. I’m glad you deleted that picture from Bill’s camera.”
“I had to. But you’re right, Amanda; this will certainly get a lot of people worked up.” Detective Bradford then looked at the dead woman.
“I don’t suppose you recognize her?”
I hope I’ve answered your questions and offered inspiration. If I can be further assistance email me at firstname.lastname@example.org