Each month I receive a newsletter from Mary Carroll Moore. Experience has taught me to digest her teaching tips as Mary writes gems.
Glennis Annie Browne
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.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“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.”
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.
Mary Carroll Moore is an award-winning, internationally published author of thirteen books in three genres, writing teacher, editor and book doctor for publishing houses. For thirty years she’s helped thousands of new and experienced writers plan, write, and develop–and publish!–their books. Photo by Bruce Fuller Photography.
About the author
Glennis Annie Browne explores the excesses, attitudes, hopes and aspirations of Australian and New Zealand families during the late 1800s. The first two historical novels in the series are ‘Bitter-Sweet Lives’ and ‘Power and Authority’. The fourth book, completing the series is ‘Secrets’ to be published mid-2021.
The author lives in New Zealand with her husband, their Shih tzu puppy, Annie, and is the proud parent of two adult sons, a delightful daughter-in-law and two wonderful grandsons.
Over many years the author has researched families and their stories, discovering incredible incidents. By telling these stories fictionally the characters come alive, bringing the readers with them on a journey that answers many of the ‘why’ questions they consider throughout their lives.
My Author Page can now be found at:
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One thought on “Great dialogue instruction by Mary Carroll Moore – an influencer in developing writing skills.”
Wow I loved this interpretation of Moore’s newsletter. Thanks so much for sharing this, and for helping me improve in my craft, Annie!