Friday, June 25, 2021

What I've Learned about Great Dialogue from Thrillers

I love literary fiction, rich nonfiction, travel memoir, all kinds of books, actually, that take me places. Every now and then, I also love a good thriller. I learn from those authors, mostly about tension, pace, and dialogue. It's high-wire stuff, and the dialogue is honed to a sharpness i don't find in a lot of other genres. Sometimes I skim over the visceral parts, but I always study the dialogue.

Dialogue isn't usually the vehicle for momentum in story. Its purpose is to deliver undercurrent, reveal what's not being said. Often, dialogue will let us into the underworld of a character, showing whatever is hidden and secret. Not because this is stated in the dialogue itself, but because it's communicated by the tags (he said, she said) or lack thereof, by the pauses and beats, by the dialect or tone.

In thrillers, the dialogue contributes to pace. The dialogue kicks things into gear.

In preparing to teach my annual dialogue workshop on July 10, I've been rereading favorite memoir and fiction. I've had the summer-reading pleasure, too, of picking up favorite thrillers, searching for examples of great dialogue.

What I've noticed anew: thriller writers use two techniques to increase tension. These are (1) interruptions and (2) beats. Beats are pauses. Placing these interruptions and beats where the writer wants the emotional emphasis, wants to ratchet up the tension, is a real art. Good thriller writers have it.

I wanted to give you a small taste of what we'll be covering in the July 10 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.”
Dead air.
“I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“For what?”
“This year.”
“What’s special about it?”
“It’s their year.”
“Why so 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.

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. The beats are very fast. Dialogue on the page, unlike some of our long-winded friends, is short when tension is high. Punchy, fast.

Some interruptions, too. Contradictions. It's a real volley.

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

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.

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