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Creating realistic dialogue in Crime Fiction

May 24, 2012

Realistic dialogue is attractive to readers required in most narratives although perhaps some more than others. It could be argued that some genres like Speculative Fiction (including sub-genres like Magic Realism and Fantasy) have dialogue which is the opposite of realistic and can fall into the surrealistic category. The genre I have been working in for the last several years is Crime fiction and ever since the early days of Detective and hard Boiled Crime fiction with writers such as Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler natural, direct, stripped-down dialogue has been the order of the day. Bare, stripped down prose was of course also a staple of Ernest Hemingway’s work, and even further back with Mark Twain, in the pantheon of American writers.

Modern American Crime fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Jonathan Kellerman and others have taken this one step further and their novels are stripped of all superfluous descriptive passages so that it is almost a kind of short hand of human dialogue and interaction. This, in my opinion, is particularly suited to the gritty realism of Crime fiction. We all know what various cities like Las Vegas and LA or the interior of flea bag (or plush 5 star )motels look like and going into great detail describing them just gets in the way of a good story.

The dialogue of what American Crime fiction writer James W. Hall calls ‘low-road commercial fiction” has a number of common characteristics. These include slang and vernacular speech, the absence of (most) adjectives and sometimes bizarre pronunciation.

Some of the techniques used by writers, including this writer, to research and create realistic dialogue, are quite simple and easy to do. Whether writing here on the Gold Coast or offshore in places like London and Tokyo I would listen to conversational dialogue at work and in public. My day job in Tokyo was a teacher of conversational English and in the UK as a teacher of secondary English so this was not at all difficult. Naturally, conversations overheard in pubs and clubs, or on the Tube, were less self-conscious and down to earth than in any classroom, sometimes exceedingly so. I acquired an ear for natural language by listening to and participating in conversations with all manner of people, from ex-cons and cops, to pillars of society and street people, not to mention language learners of all ages and backgrounds. Exposure to such a wide spectrum of accents and register (but no dialects, in my view English has no genuine dialects) was essential for this writer so as to get the sound and feel of various Englishes ladled with a fair dollop of slang.

In the UK and later I thought I had this all down in my soon to be published Crime novel ‘London’s Falling’, yet I was mistaken, or at least partly so. Many of my dialogue sentences ended in ’ yeah’ as a  kind of  question mark, something which I had heard on the ground in the UK frequently and even here. I had made use of this conversational stylistic device so often that the dialogue came out off key to my publishing editor and I made amends. Using the word ‘mate’ (often used in fiction and in real life in the UK and especially Australia) too much or including too much out dated slang can also take away from the credibility of your story.

A certain logical perspective is required in the use of direct speech when creating believable dialogue. Sure your novel might have some remarkable villains yet they don’t have to all sound that way and certainly not all the time. A cockney accent can be feigned or it can be masked with one more cultivated according to the motivations of the character and you can see such sudden alterations on the ground in real life. Even a teacher of elocution or an Oxford Don may sound very different away from the classroom or lecture theatre.

Most actual  dialogue is made up as you go along so pauses, errors and digressions can be part of realistic fictional dialogue just as it is when you, say, have a telephone conversation. If a character, such as a dodgy politician is prone to ostentatious speechifying, then that can be included also. A change in register or tone in such a character can add insight and traction to the story.  It’s only word on paper so you want to make your narrative, not least in Crime fiction, as life like as possible. A character can be in character or out of character in the manner of a confidence trickster or someone making out (s) he is something (s) he is not.

In many Crime fiction novels, crims, cops and politicians don’t always speak the same language or accent, so to speak, and this can have an impact on events. In my own novel(s) there are inappropriate connections between the crooks, the cops, the politicians and the press and I thought this was best conveyed through dialogue according to the show don’t tell rule. All have something to sell and the tenor, tone, register and vocabulary of the pitch, not to mention the dishonesty, can and does get them in trouble. When people dissemble or prevaricate there are certain ’tells’ (paralinguistic as well As linguistic) that an experienced observer can pick up. As someone who also works in the security industry I have experience in this and have put these observational and analytical tools to work in my fiction.

So when writing crime fiction or in any other genre, a good start is to try listening to real people have real conversations. Happy writing!

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