Monday, September 14, 2015

What Thriller Writers Can Teach You about Stellar Dialogue: Learning about Beats, Tags, Interruptions and Other Techniques to Increase Tension

I'm not a thriller writer.  I've edited thrillers, I've read them, I've taught thriller writers how to structure and refine their books.  But writing that high-tension stuff doesn't come naturally to me. 

But I've learned a LOT from working on thrillers.  One skill that's translated over into my own memoir and fiction is the thriller style of dialogue.  It's tense, it builds, it can take a mundane subject and create undercurrent that makes the reader shiver.  Best of all, it's aces at revealing character.


In preparing to teach my dialogue workshop on September 26, I've been reading some thrillers again for great dialogue examples.  I've learned (once more!) how thriller writers use two techniques--beats and interruptions--to increase tension.  I wanted to give you a small taste of what we'll be covering in the September 26 workshop and one of the excerpts we'll be using, from Peter Abrahams' 1995 thriller, The Fan, about a man who becomes obsessed with a baseball player. 

Here's a great section from the novel, where Gil, the main character, is calling in to a radio show.  Look at how Abrahams uses beats--the pauses that heighten certain sections of dialogue.  He breaks the dialogue at certain places and we absorb, as readers, the last word as most important.  Also, look at how he uses the DJ's interruptions and changes of subject, the slight ridicule of Gil's obsession, to show us the difference between the two men in this conversation:
 

“What about the Sox, Gil?”
“Just that I’m psyched, Bernie.”
“Bernie’s off today. This is Norm. Everybody gets psyched in the spring. That’s a given in this game. Like ballpark mustard.”
“This is different.”
“How?”
Dead air.
“Gil?”
“I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“For what?”
“This year.”
“What’s special about it?”
“It’s their year.”
“Why so tentative?”
“Tentative?”
“Just pulling your leg. The way you sound so sure. Like it’s a lead-pipe cinch. The mark of the true-blue fan.”
Dead air.
“Gil?”
“Yeah.”

Abrahams uses no tags, the "he said, she said" that dialogue usually contains.  Why not?  Because without tags, there's a faster pace.  Tags are useful only if it's potentially confusing, like three speakers might be.  Here, we can follow easily.

What else does Abrahams make use of?  Short, short sentences.  Dialogue on the page, unlike some of our long-winded friends, is short.  Punchy, fast. 

Finally, see how this author steers clear of any exposition, or telling us about the topic, the people, the day, the weather, the location.  Thriller writers are good at this--not revealing information, just letting the undercurrents of dialogue reveal tension instead.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

If you enjoyed this, and want more, consider joining me on September 26 at the Loft. 

1.  Read the section of dialogue above aloud.  What do you notice?  It's sharp, isn't it, almost staccato.  Now find a section--about 1/2 page--of your own dialogue and read it aloud.  What do you notice about its pacing?  How are the two different?

2.  Rewrite your 1/2 page of dialogue, using Abrahams' section above as a model.  Where he uses two words, you do the same.  Where there's an interruption ("dead air") add an interruption.  Where the DJ changes subject or makes fun, try that too.

Some writers seem to just have an ear for dialogue.  They know how to take an idea and translate it into spoken words on the page.  Others of us have to work at it.  This exercise shares two of of the best ways to learn dialogue:  read aloud and compare, and model it.