Readers of crime fiction are generally looking for credible, fast paced narrative and the inclusion of dialogue helps both to create an illusion of reality, and to move the action along quickly.
Beginning a novel in the middle of a scene draws readers straight into the action, with an immediate hook, inviting them to suspend their disbelief right from the start. Used effectively, dialogue is a technique that achieves this. As a “fly on the wall”, the reader observes the characters as if they are watching a scene unfold in real life.
Dialogue tells readers about a character, through the words they use and the way they say them.
In Murder Ring, when Lenny sees his girlfriend for the first time in eighteen months, his first words to her are: “You know bloody well where I been. I been in the nick. You can’t have forgotten.” His words give a strong hint of his bad temper, and his abusive relationship with her. When Geraldine is summoned to a crime scene, she responds tersely, “I’m on my way.” The brevity of her reply gives a sense of purpose, which tells the reader more about her character than a description of her focused character might do.
In addition to revealing character, dialogue can move the plot along. A writer constantly needs to convey information to readers, but obvious information ‘dumps’ slow the action, and can break the illusion. Information can be conveyed subtly through dialogue. A detective questioning a witness can elicit information without the writer having to resort to telling the reader directly what needs to be passed on. Sometimes an apparently innocuous comment can be significant. For example, when a victim’s widow tells Geraldine that her husband “should have been wearing his jacket,” this seemingly insignificant remark later helps Geraldine to discover the identity of the killer. (You’re probably already speculating about how this pans out – and if you want to know how if you’re right, you’ll have to read the book!)
In order to pass on information, many writers have their detectives working with a partner. Through their conversation, one detective can question his or her colleague, and the answers pre-empt questions that the reader might have. In this way, the reader learns information almost without noticing it is being given.
Many series have a female and a male partnership which makes writing dialogue easier for the author as ‘he said” or “she said” can be slipped in unobtrusively to indicate who is speaking. With that in mind, my series detective Geraldine Steel works with a male sergeant in her early books.
Three books into her series, Geraldine Steel relocates to London. By the time this happened her sergeant, Ian Peterson, had become a popular character in his own right so he embarked on his own spin off series. In her new position in London, Geraldine is accompanied by a feisty female sergeant, Sam Haley. Sam is young, and fun, and down to earth. The only problem Sam has caused for me, as a writer, is that I can no longer identify a speaker with an almost unnoticeable “she said”, as both my characters are female. Writing conversation between two women demands more ingenuity from a writer than writing a conversation between a man and a woman.
Characters have their own individual voices which need to be signalled to the reader clearly enough to be apparent, without making the language incomprehensible. It’s a balancing act, in the same way that an actor needs to signal a regional accent to an audience, without it being so broad that he or she becomes incomprehensible. Character’s voices need to be treated with care. In Murder Ring, a character named TeeJay needs to be established as the leader of a teenage gang in London. While the content of his speech sometimes needs to be clear, at the same time he has to speak convincingly in street slang. “No need, innit,” he tells his friends in Murder Ring, when he first appears.
It’s important to hear character’s voices, balancing how authentic they should be with how easy they are to understand. But the golden rule is that the reader must always understand what characters say.
So dialogue can be used to support plot, reveal character, and add local colour. Whatever its intended purpose, it forms a key part of any novel.