Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing and Using Dialogue, by Susan Oleksiw

When I was struggling with writing a particular scene in my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, I recalled Dorothea Brande’s advice to read writers who have mastered the skill you’re struggling with. If your prose is terse, read someone more expansive, such as James Lee Burke. If your sentences and paragraphs run on too long, read someone who has mastered the skill of brevity, such as Agatha Christie.

The standard guideline for dialogue is brevity with a purpose. Conversation between characters can easily become a way of dumping information, telling the reader about important events instead of showing them. Mystery writers tend to tell the solution to the crime in the final chapters, making the story more talky than action. (And I confess to falling into this trap.) In Technique in Fiction, Robie Macauley uses the final lines of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” to illustrate the impact a few carefully crafted lines of dialogue can have.

In the Anita Ray series, I use dialogue to develop the setting of South India as well as reveal character. In When Krishna Calls, Anita questions both educated and uneducated Indians, each with his or her own dialectical peculiarities. The rhythm of Indian languages is recognizable in English, and gives me the chance to alter the “feel” of speech. In addition, because of the preferred grammatical forms of South Indian languages, characters have a variety of ways of concealing the truth that only sound awkward to foreigners, introducing an extra layer of confusion and deception.

One of the best examples of the use of dialogue is in the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett introduces Sam Spade and his secretary, Effie Perine, through a sharp, swift dialogue that is classic and known to everyone who loves crime fiction. But even though this passage is often chosen to illustrate how perfectly dialogue reveals character, it also reveals the ideal balance between prose and dialogue. The five lines of speech are set into one and a half pages of description of the room, the people, and activity. The ratio of dialogue to prose varies throughout the book, with the amount of dialogue increasing.

To understand what dialogue can do in a novel, the reader only need pick up Gregory McDonald’s first mystery, Fletch. The author wanted it to be 98 percent dialogue, and he feels he achieved that goal. The challenge, of course, is to use speech between individuals to establish not only character but also structure for plot and action. McDonald has called himself a post-cinematic writer, by which he means that because we as readers already have so much visual information, the writer doesn’t need to spend time or verbiage on describing a street in Paris at midnight—we’ve seen this street a hundred times before in the movies. We know the world fictional characters live in. If we don’t, a few words will set the stage, drawing on what we do know. This approach places a heavy burden on dialogue to inform, reveal, and move the story forward. Not many writers have followed in McDonald’s path.

When I work on the dialogue of a scene, I think of the best examples I’ve read, but I also think of something I read by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said, “. . . when I have to hide something, I let the characters speak.”

To find the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series go to these links:



Jacqueline Seewald said...


This is a wonderful discussion of the value, purposes and techniques in the use of dialogue in fiction. I worry at times that I use too much dialogue and will refer back to your information in my writing.

Michele Dorsey said...

More talky than action. Now there's a pit I've fallen into a few times! Great post and resources.

Earl Staggs said...

Good points, Susan. I'm not that great at description and have to really work at it. For that reason, I try to put as much as possible in dialogue. It's so much easier for me to let the characters talk than it is for me to do it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, if you think you use too much dialogue, you should look at McDonald's "Fletch." You'll feel better. Thanks for commenting.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Michele. Yes, I cringe when I read one of my "talky" scenes. Thanks for stopping by.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Earl, I like a lot of dialogue too, but I worry that I'm not that good at it. That's why I keep in mind writers like Dashiell Hammett and others. Thanks for commenting.