I am delighted to welcome Andrea Johnson to the blog today. Some of you may know Andrea from her Victoria Justice Mysteries about a trial stenographer turned amateur sleuth. But today I’ve invited her to the blog to talk about her other writing career. Andrea writes books for writers. She’s written How to Craft a Killer Cozy Mystery, Mastering the Art of Suspense: How to Write Legal Thrillers, Medical Mysteries, & Crime Fiction, and her most recent book How to Craft Killer Dialogue for Fiction & Creative Non-Fiction. I’m delighted she agreed to write a post for us.
What Makes Dialogue Memorable?
“He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
This classic line comes from The Untouchables (1987), written by famed playwright David Mamet, which chronicles a group of police officers tasked with bringing down Al Capone and his Chicago-based bootlegging empire. Spoken by Irish cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), the line is delivered to help Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) understand that the only way to beat Capone is to play dirtier than Capone.
This line’s ability to perfectly capture the moment has been praised the world over, even paraphrased by Barack Obama during a 2008 Presidential fundraising campaign in response to his upcoming battle against Republicans.
But why make such a fuss over a movie line—not to mention, one that’s more crime thriller than cozy? Well, it’s just one of the many pieces of magically memorable dialogue that almost kept me from becoming a writer. It took me well over 40 years before I had enough courage to put pen to paper because no one had told me the simple truth:
Writing effective dialogue simply requires having a clear picture of what information you’d like the scene to convey and an understanding of how that speech will deepen your character’s personality and propel the plot. In other words, what do you want the exchange to accomplish both internally and externally? Answering this simple question will ensure that the dialogue you write moves the narrative forward, which results in a significant change in the characters’ attitudes and their situation.
Another key is to write dialogue where the characters are either in disagreement or discovery. Use subtext to highlight the opposing agendas, hidden resentments, or subtle tensions bubbling under every exchange. That way, you’re constantly sharing new data with the reader by setting up situations where your characters are able to express their desires, grievances, and motivations—after all, such clues and confessions are essential to every whodunit.
In fact, traditional mysteries often include extensive recaps or explanations of motive by the sleuth (and villain), especially during the finale. However, to avoid turning those crucial moments into monotonous speeches, find ways to create breaks within those monologues by emphasizing external actions such as the sleuth pulling out evidence to support her claim or having her quell physical confrontations among the accused. In addition, you may find it helpful to divide the explanation across several scenes or chapters, revealing parts of the solution in each. Or better yet, break up long blocks of speech by having the other characters interrupt or ask for clarification. This helps to synthesize the information for the audience while ensuring the scene has a steady pace. You can also include the actions and reactions of the listeners as well as moments of internal reflection from the viewpoint character to comment about how things are progressing. This ensures your story evokes a sense of realism, which prevents your reader from getting bored.
But most importantly, just as I learned while watching and rewatching The Untouchables, don’t feel obligated to start conversations from the beginning or to end them with polite finality. Just like a good movie, a good story should cut to the heart of the matter and leave the audience wanting more.
Readers, what would you consider memorable dialogue? Is there a passage from a book or a quote from a film that kicks you in the gut every single time? Post your reply in the comments within 48-hours of this publication for a chance to win all three books in the Writer Productivity Series.
Andrea J. Johnson is the author of the Victoria Justice Mysteries, a courtroom whodunit series. She also teaches Creative Writing at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and has penned three productivity guides: How to Craft a Killer Cozy Mystery, Mastering the Art of Suspense, and How to Craft Killer Dialogue.
To gain more advice, join Andrea’s mailing list for a copy of her FREE 38-page Writer Productivity Bundle, which includes tips on dialogue, synopsis writing, comp titles, agent queries, and much more! – https://ajthenovelist.com/sign-up/
You can also follow Andrea on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter @ajthenovelist or learn more about her and her fiction books at ajthenovelist.com.
About the Book:
Ever wonder what techniques Elmore Leonard used to create masterful dialogue for his highly quotable crime stories? Want to create the same heart-warming character introspections as found in the works of Judy Blume? Or maybe, you’d prefer to plumb the depths of layered subtext as powerfully displayed in the works of artists like Toni Morrison? With How to Craft Killer Dialogue, you will reach all of those goals as well as master your own approach to enhancing characterization through vivid dialogue. You will also learn everything you need to transform the spoken language in your book—from how to develop tension and suspense to techniques for representing accents and dialects effectively. So whether you’re writing a novel, memoir, or something in between, How to Craft Killer Dialogue is your go-to resource for creating, revising, and perfecting conversations that your readers will quote for years to come. Learn more: https://ajthenovelist.com/book/dialogue/