Mystery Mondays: Dan Alatorre on Great Dialogue

Today on Mystery Mondays we have Dan Alatorre. I asked Dan to join us because I read his novel THE NAVIGATORS and was very impressed by how he handled multiple characters.

Over to Dan, and then I’ll tell you more about him and where you can find his work.

10 Tips To Writing GREAT Dialogs Between Multiple Characters

Most new authors find writing dialog difficult. Not every reader knows how to describe a beautiful sunset but they all know how to talk. If we get our dialog right – as in, if it’s snappy and poignant and occasionally witty (not like most conversations in real life) – readers LOVE it.

If we don’t, well… they hate it. Chuck Wendig referred to dialog as candy. I tend to go the diabetic route. My characters talk a lot.

But since they’re also witty and snappy and occasionally argumentative, it works.

It’s even harder to write dialog when there are lots of people conversing. In the movie Amadeus, Tom Hulce’s Beethoven explains that many voices singing at the same time is perfect harmony – but many voices talking at the same time is noise.

Noise? I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ammy reviewers saying that about my scenes.

Balance the urgency of getting our conversation going – witty, snappy – versus moving too fast and confusing readers – noise – versus MAKING BAD WRITING.

Crap, I’m not sure I want to do this post now.

Oh, but wait; I already did.

In my novel The Navigators, I had to quickly introduce five characters in the opening scene. I used dialog to do it.

Why five? Barry plans on taking his team of grad students to a dangerous, remote Florida mine site. For security reasons, five is the minimum he needs but they don’t want to go.

Why do we need to introduce them in the opening scene? Grabbing the reader’s attention in a story is important, and the opening lines show we are in the middle of an argument – so we are in the middle of a dialog. That gets the reader’s attention. If you are in Target and you hear two people arguing, you notice. Barry has apparently laid out his case before the story starts, but Roger actually opens the story – with an adamant rejection of Barry’s idea. As in, F-word adamant. (College kids swear. Shocker.) Make a note of Roger’s profanity; we’ll come back to it later.

Why start this way at all? Aha, grasshopper: pace. My novel is a page turner, and yours should be, too. The Navigators moves fast on purpose, creating the necessary tension to keep readers glued to the page. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and the opening of the next chapter grabs the reader again.

THAT’s why we need dialog that works.

Ready? Here’s how I started. FIVE characters in five (very short) paragraphs:

“No way.” Roger shook his head and left the kitchen. “You fuckers are crazy.”

Barry jumped up from behind his desk. “Come on. A paleontology dig at a mine in central Florida is practically like going to the beach.”

“Only hotter.” I set my plate on the coffee table and leaned back, folding my arms.

Melissa carried her hamburger to the kitchen. “It’s smellier, too. Yuck.” She leaned on the counter, taking her free hand and sweeping her long brown locks behind her ear.

Riff sat in the far chair with his elbows on his knees. Even when relaxed, his massive arms looked like they were flexing. He twirled his car keys with his thick fingers. “A mine is a beach without a personality. Digging for fossils in a big open sand pit with a hot little spillway pond in the middle.” He faced me. “I’m not sure that’s where I want to spend my summer.”

That was a lot! And if I kept going like that, I’d lose every reader. But the paragraphs that follow these allow each character to be described a little, or to speak in their pre-determined style. (That’s #1.)

In 156 words, I introduced five characters, started giving the reader an indication of their personalities (make another note of that), and explained what the story was about.

Barry is intellectual and already defending his plan.

Roger is angry; he swears

Melissa has a cute line. She says “smellier” and “yuck.”

Riff is quiet.

And the narrator, I, (“Peeky”) mostly observes it all. Passive.

  1. It may be confusing to some readers, but not to most readers. Assume your reader is smart. They’ll figure it out quickly and keep everyone straight as you add layers to the characters.

Because Roger swears and pouts, it sticks. Barry talks a lot in chapter one, so he establishes himself as articulate and intelligent. Melissa and the narrator, Peeky, joke back and forth with each other, which makes them memorable.

All that is stuff you need to have in mind when you start writing, so paint it in a little at a time as each character speaks or acts. Readers will collect these tidbits in the character buckets in their heads, and pretty soon they’re good to go.

  1. I don’t try to give all five major roles right away, either. For example, Riff is almost a bystander in chapter one – but he has a major scene in chapter two. After that, you know him pretty well.

So let’s look at the dialog again. Roger swears initially, so he is angry throughout the scene. Make that obvious every time he speaks – for this scene. Then readers subconsciously know him as the angry character. Melissa is the only female, but she is playful and cute. She speaks that way. Emphasize the character’s personality a little each time they speak. (If Roger has to get a glass of water, think of an angry way to ask for it. See?) Roger’s not always a jerk, but if there’s a reaction to paint, that’s his main color.

  1. Next, we have the issue of identifying who is speaking without constantly saying so with the dreaded dialog tags (writing “Melissa said” and Barry asked.”) Said doesn’t add much information, so try not to use it. Instead, when you have a character speak, have them do something (called a beat) before or after their line.

Throughout the opening scene, Melissa:

  • finishes eating,
  • takes her plate to the sink,
  • rests on the counter,
  • pushes her hair behind her ear.

Each time she has to speak, we show her doing something too. We know it’s her AND we add to her character bucket.

  1. When your character speaks, have them say something worth saying! My characters joke around with each other – that endears them to the reader and we understand them as friends and not just teammates. But when they speak, important information is conveyed. Think about the points you need to make, boil it down to the fewest words possible, decide which character is best to make them, and then have the character deliver the information in that character’s unique style. The balance of beats and condensed word information carries the day, even in a wordy tome like mine.
  1. I like to say it’s not math, it’s jazz. What works for me will be different for you. Embrace the differences and write in your own style:
  • Add segments of description when a thoughtful pause is needed. (See Riff’s opening lines, above.)
  • In real life, we might interrupt or crack a joke. Let your characters do it, too.
  • Have them disagree. TOOOOO often authors have one character say, “Let’s go to the mine!” and everyone else says “Okay!” Yawn. My characters say, “No way! We are definitely not going!” Conflict is interesting. Use it.
  1. Mix up the rhythm of the sentences and the beats. Have the main conversation go off on tangents between two characters for a while and drop in background information:

Then I turned back to Roger, who had remained uncharacteristically quiet this entire time. “And there won’t be any pretty girls at the mine.”

“Hey.” Melissa swatted me from over the counter.

“Well, you know what I mean. Pretty girls that I don’t know… that I can ogle.”

“Why, Tomàs Pequant.” She turned her head in mock indignance. “You’re a married man.”

I shrugged. “Married, not dead.”

“You little Middle Eastern snake.” She wagged a finger at me, flashing her brilliant smile. “I’m going to have to keep my eye on you.”

See? They’re still talking about the mine, but they’re obviously all been to the beach together, and Peeky (Thomas Pequant) might have eyes for Melissa. That implies she’s pretty. We also learn where Peeky’s from.

All that, without a “he said” or “she asked.”

  1. Tags are a last resort, but they aren’t illegal. Use them when nothing else works.
  1. When it’s only two people speaking, just have them trade lines.

Remember, characters move, so use beats to identify them and give us information. Have conversations get to the point quickly.

  1. If you can’t get there quickly, at least make it an interesting ride.

It’s a story, after all; not a textbook.

Who is Dan Alatorre?

headshot bwDan is author of numerous best sellers, host of the YouTube video show Writers Off Task With Friends, blogger… and father to a hilarious and precocious daughter, “Savvy” of the bestselling book series Savvy Stories. His novels, short stories, illustrated children’s books and cookbooks have been translated into 12 different languages and are enjoyed around the world.

Dan and his family live in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. (If it’s Friday, he’s making pizza, including making the dough and sauce from scratch. Who does that?)

Check out Dan’s Amazon page HERE and see all his books that are currently for sale!

And a little about THE NAVIGATORS

TheNavigatorsFinal.jpgA freak landslide at a remote mine site uncovers a strange machine to Barry’s group of paleontology students. Wary of corrupt school officials, his team takes the machine home to study it in secret, reaching only one realistic – and unbelievable – conclusion: It was designed to bridge the time-space continuum. It’s a time machine.

Testing delivers disastrous results, sending one team member to the hospital and nearly killing another. When word leaks about the discovery, the ultimate power struggle ensues: the university wants it for funding, the power company wants its energy regenerating abilities kept under wraps, and a rival group wants to steal it for themselves. No one cares if Barry’s team comes out alive.

Fleeing for their lives, the students must fight the school, the police, and each other if they want to learn the truth about what they’ve discovered – a truth with more severe consequences than any of them can predict.