Dialogue: Two Writing Tactics for Mystery Writers to Engage Readers

a man and woman in dialogue looking out over a city

Dialogue is Action with Words

Action is something your character does. Dialogue is action with words. Your character speaks to convey intent. And another character responds. Dialogue represents a conversation between or among characters. Today’s two dialogue tips will help you master character speech.

Many authors struggle with how to write dialogue.

  • Sometimes it feels unreal
  • Sometimes it feels repetitive
  • Characters speak the same way
  • When to add dialogue tags
  • How to differentiate characters speaking

Writing dialogue is integral to storytelling. You don’t need to be intimidated by writing dialogue when you know your characters and understand the purpose of a scene. And there are several reasons to include dialogue in your story.

Why Dialogue Is Important in Your Story

Dialogue feels real to your reader. People talk to each other in real life. Dialogue adds verisimilitude to your story.

Here are just a few ways dialogue contributes to your story:

  • Add a sense of real life
  • Show character emotions
  • Express character intention
  • Illustrate character motivation
  • Demonstrate how characters respond to other characters
  • Show rather than tell character action
  • Speeds up your story

Use dialogue to eliminate the need for long narrative passages and bring your reader directly into the story action.

Give Each Character Their Own Words

Start with your character. Think of phrases your character uses regularly. Maybe they say OK a lot. Or, darn tootin’. Or, catch you later. Or, make an offer he can’t refuse. Give each of your characters a catchphrase. You’ll help your reader identify who is speaking. Add your character’s phrases to their character background.

Go through your character bible to attach words and phrases to each character. Do this in the same way you relate specific body movements to a character: waving hands in the air, stumbling, striding in like they own the world.

In the same way you attach movements to a character, connect verbal phrases that reflect their personality. In the same way readers associate physical attributes with a character, your character’s words and phrases will be recognizable whenever they speak.

Unique Dialogue for Each Scene

As you approach a scene, think of the main character’s goal, the obstacle, and the outcome for the scene. When you think of dialogue as action, plan how each character functions in the scene. More importantly, plan how what the character says moves the scene, and the story, forward.

Dialogue is part of a character’s action. What they say can help your detective protagonist—see a problem in a new way, present a new problem your sleuth has overlooked, etc. This dialogue works for setup within the scene.

During the scene conflict, your characters will speak at odds. Conflict is the perfect place in a scene to use subtext. Or, a character will go outside their ordinary language in a tense situation. You’ll add to the tension because your reader understands how this character acts/speaks typically.

At the end of the scene, a character can state the changed emotion from the scene beginning. Once again, you raise the tension as the reader wonders what will happen next. You are pointing the reader toward the next scene.

Let Your Characters Guide the Dialogue

As your reader learns the speech patterns of each character, they will follow the dialogue, saving you adding dialogue tags—space out the tags every five paragraphs or so.

How the characters speak and the actions accompanying their speech help the reader understand the character. When their speech changes, you alert your reader to conflict moments in the scene.

The time you spend creating characters’ individual word and phrase backgrounds will help you write dialogue that fits the character, shows their emotion at the moment, and creates tension in the scene.

Let your characters guide your dialogue writing.

Photo by Adam Freeman on Unsplash

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