How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

tension

Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

feelings

Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

talk

So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

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It’s Sooo Easy: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Explains How to Write a Private Eye Novel

max picHey, would-be writers of mystery!: To celebrate the launch of my latest book Ed, Not Eddie, I thought I’d show everyone just how easy it is to write a P.I. novel. Follow these simple steps and join the pantheon of great detective writers: Raymond Chandler, P.D. James,  Ross MacDonald. . .Fill-In-Your-Name-Here.  

by Max Everhart

Part One (average length: one to two chapters at most): P.I. meets client. Client describes the case, usually withholding some important information.  In classic noir tales, the P.I. will be sarcastic, jaded, and more than likely attempt to talk the client out of engaging his/her investigative services. But, reluctantly, the detective is hired, and then he/she asks pertinent questions about the case and the people involved. This initial meeting sets up Part Two.

Tips for Part One:

  • Establish a clear setting, which includes not only the physical environment, but the time period as well.
  • Establish the narrative perspective and tone of the book.  Most private eye tales are in either first person or a tight third person narration, but there are exceptions. Regarding tone, ask yourself if you want the book to be funny, serious, whimsical, satirical. . .whatever, just write accordingly. And keep it consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Sprinkle in interesting details about the P.I., but do not, under any circumstances, do an information dump.

usual suspects

Part Two (average length: four to seven chapters, depending on the complexity of the case): P.I. meets/interrogates all relevant suspects/witnesses. He/she asks basic questions that establish each character’s motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime, all the while taking notes (mental or otherwise).  During this phase, the detective also performs research, collects “clues,” and forms general impressions about the suspects/witnesses and the case at large.

Tips for Part Two:

  • All suspects should have a credible motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime. Translation: anyone could have been responsible for the crime in question.
  • Create an atmosphere of distrust, especially between the P.I. and all the suspects, but it helps for the P.I. to start to doubt the intentions of the client as well.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the crime. This helps the reader better understand the crime and allows him/her to investigate right alongside the P.I.
  • Write scenes, not chapters. Scenes are based on action; characters in a particular place, hopefully an interesting one, working out the basic dramatic conflict.
  • Periodically have the P.I. briefly summarize what he/she “knows” or “thinks” about the case thus far. Keeps the reader orientated. Helps you, the writer, as well.
  • Keep the pace brisk. Translation: move the story forward, always. Remove any long-winded backstory, exposition, or stalled scenes.

red herring

Part Three: (average length: three to four chapters): P.I. narrows the pool of suspects. Accomplish this by eliminating suspects that could not have committed the crime in question. Have the P.I. hone in on his/her favorite suspects and really squeeze them.  At this point, the dramatic tension gets ratcheted up a notch, which helps lead toward the climax and resolution.  Typically, the detective will bark up the wrong tree a bit before discovering the true villain(s). Keeps the reader guessing. Keeps the detective on his/her toes.

Tips for Part Three:

  • Throw in a red herring or two.
  • Have the P.I. involved in a dangerous scuffle/gunfight or two. Helps increase the tension and build toward a satisfying conclusion.
  • End each chapter provocatively—with a startling image, interesting dialogue. . .anything that demands the reader keep reading til the end.

climax

Part Four (average length: two to three chapters): P.I. figures out the culprit.  A showdown ensues (aka: the climax).  Depending on the type of mystery (hardboiled, cozy, murder, etc), the climax may or may not involve violence, but remember, there need not be bloodshed in order to create drama and excitement for the reader. Just remember that the ending should be surprising, yet inevitable.

Tips for Part Four:

  • Don’t cheat! No acts of God. No surprise villains. You have to play fair with the reader, which means you should have given the reader just barely enough information to deduce the ending.
  • Make it dramatic! Novels can have flaws and problems (and all of them do), but if you play fair and still wow them in the end, it’s a successful book. And those same readers will want to read another one by you.

pd james

Recommended Books and Articles

Well, that’s about it. Tune in again when I discuss the two basic types of private detectives: Intuitives and Scientifics. Until then, go buy Ed, Not Eddie!

 

 

 

Whom Do You Kill: How Kait Carson Constructs a Murder Mystery

Author photos 009On constructing a murder mystery: In the case of a deliberate murder, I look to the victim. Somewhere in his life lie the seeds of his destruction. There was a moment in time when that person set his fate into motion.

Most of my books are murder mysteries. Although some don’t appear to be about murder at first. The general topic includes something timely, human smuggling, drug dealing, corruption, general malfeasance, and then the dead guy shows up. The villains are usually folks you would have to dinner, and the victims could be your best friend. That brings up a problem. How does a writer decide who needs killin’?

The process is different for every writer. I’ve been told that some writers find someone they really, really, really don’t like, and they gleefully kill them off on their pages. Others base their selection on an evildoer they’ve read or heard about and let their imagination take over. Some stream of consciousness writers (a/k/a pantsers) just start the book and wait to see who dies. It’s as good a way as any other is.

female private eyeOn solving the murder mystery: I don’t know why the victim died. To discover that, I write, page after page of profile. The notes talk about the victim’s life, who his friends are, his childhood, what he did for a living, for recreation, his politics, his business associates, and his beliefs

My way is a little different. One of my majors in college was psychology. The study fascinated me, especially the part that dealt with human interactions and how we are the masters of our own destiny and the authors of our own downfall. The concept is like catnip to my creative mind. In the case of a deliberate murder, I look to the victim. Somewhere in his life lie the seeds of his destruction. There was a moment in time when that person set his fate into motion. It’s a time when a choice had to be made, and the victim, knowingly or unknowingly, made one that would have fatal consequences.

I can see you thinking back on your own life…. Have you taken that one turn? Made that simple choice? Of course you have, you’re human. So many possibilities will your choices bear good or evil fruit.

Before I start a book, I know my victim and my protagonist. I don’t know why the victim died. To discover that, I write, page after page of profile. The notes talk about the victim’s life, who his friends are, his childhood, what he did for a living, for recreation, his politics, his business associates, and his beliefs. Somewhere in the middle of all of this free form writing, a pattern begins to appear. Victims at this stage develop the desire for pets, social symbols, spouses, families. They also develop behavior patterns. These behavior patterns become organic. No other person in the book could possibly react in the same way as the victim. How he rationalizes that a particular wrong is right. These reactions and rationalizations tell me why he needs killin’.

Can you identify these seeds in your life? Do you believe that victims are everyman?

(Confession of a killer writer, I’m using the pronoun “he” in these paragraphs. I’ve killed women too. He is nothing more than a convenience of convention, not a definitive identifier.)

 

It’s the Characters, Stupid: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains

maltese falcon“You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and then give it up.”

By Max Everhart

It’s the economy, stupid.

That’s an old joke about the most important aspect of politics, and it’s a joke that I, as a committed, but albeit unsuccessful capitalist, happen to agree with wholeheartedly. (Alas, mystery writers, even damn good ones like me, don’t earn a ton of bread. C’est la vie).

Really, I couldn’t give a toss about politics. Don’t have time to care. Plus, liberals and conservatives alike make my scalp itch, which is just as well as I have a toddler to potty-train and English classes to teach and long walks to go on and Earl Grey to drink. In short, I’m busy. I mean, windows don’t just stare out of themselves, do they? And who if not me is going to organize my Netflix queue? Water my garden? Nuke more Pop Tarts? (Seriously, somebody get on that; I’m hungry.)

Enough foreplay.

To my thesis (drumroll, please): when it comes to mystery novels, it’s the characters, stupid. Characters, particularly the protagonist and the antagonist, trump all. I, like a lot of readers, enjoy an ingenious plot (The ABC Murders and The Maltese Falcon spring to mind), and a strong sense of place (think James Ellroy’s depiction of 1950s L.A. in The Big Nowhere). But what’s more important is the presence of strong characters, especially the hero who should be formidable, and flawed, and resourceful, and dynamic, and. . .you get the idea. Tall order, eh?

Maybe. But here are some quick and easy tips for creating memorable characters, along with some examples to check out.

 

TIP #1: always make sure that characters are driving the plot, not the other way around.

As readers, we are going to gravitate toward interesting, complex, flawed, likable characters, and if those are present in a book, the pages will turn themselves. Too, if the writer has created an interesting character, said character will naturally get involved in interesting situations, and there’s your plot. So, writers, if you’re writing scene after scene with a character, it’s just not working, chances are it is the character’s fault.

EXAMPLE: C.W. Sugrue, a hard-as-nails private eye in The Last Good Kiss. Talk about interesting characters. Hired to track down an alcoholic poet, Sugrue ends up bouncing from bar to bar, state to state, and never mind. Just read the opening of this book, and you’ll see what I mean:

last good kissWhen I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

TIP #2: reveal something good about your villain and something bad about your hero. 

Why? People are flawed and complex, and your characters should be, too. If ever you’re stuck, ask yourself the ultimate characterization question: what (or who) does my character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way?

Example: Chili Palmer, a shylock in Get ShortyNotice how Elmore Leonard reveals not only the origin of Palmer’s nickname, but he also adds a new layer of characterization to the protagonist.

get shortyErnesto Palmer got the name Chili originally because he was hot-tempered as a kid…Now he was Chili, Tommy Carlo said, because he had chilled down and didn’t need the hot temper. All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife’s car to make the payment.

TIP #3: begin and end chapters with your characters doing (or saying) something interesting. 

This could be a provocative image or a bit of snappy dialogue. Readers want to be pulled into the story, particularly at the start and end of a new chapter, so make sure to keep them turning pages.  The best mystery and crime writers are adept at this, especially Daniel Woodrell, one of my favorites.

Example: Sammy Barlach, an ex-con in Tomato Red. Here is one of the the best openings of a crime novel ever.

tomato redYOU’RE NO ANGEL, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat. . .

If you’ve got more tips for creating memorable characters, or you have a favorite character you want to mention, leave us a comment.