Monday, July 10, 2006

WTPEN -- Dialog and More

Here’s the final installment of the writing the private eye novel slides. This time we’re talking a bit about dialog, discussing the popular PI helper character and providing a list of suggested reading.


A couple of tips about dialog. One mistake it’s easy to make is over-tagging of the speaker with he said/she saids. It can get annoying to the reader very fast and it’s often clear from the context who is talking.

That said, a few authors have made consistent tagging a sort of point of style. As an example, almost every sentence of dialog in Friends of Eddie Coyle follows the pattern shown in the slide, right down to always putting the tag in the middle of the sentence, rather than at the end or the beginning. It does build a sort of rhythm, but there are probably better ways to earn style points.

Another dialog trap is long sections of pure talk with no physical description to break it up or give a sense of physical grounding. Adding some description of surroundings or characters’ movements or appearance while they speak (sometimes referred to as “physical beats”) can also help to convey emotion without resorting to melodramatic language.

Also, having the physical beats can often obviate the need for a dialog tag. Chandler was a master of using physical beats, as you can see by looking at almost any page from his novels. Here’s a hastily selected snippet from The Little Sister that proves the point:

"But I don't really know what kind of guy you are, do I?" She laughed suddenly and a tear came from nowhere and slid down her cheek.

"For all I know you might be nice for any kind of guy."

She snatched the cigarette loose and put her hand to her mouth and bit on it. "What's the matter with me? Am I drunk?"

"You're stalling for time," I said. "But I can't make up my mind whether it's to give someone time to get here--or to give somebody time to get far away from here. And again it could just be brandy on top of shock. You're a little girl and you want to cry into your mother's apron."

"Not my mother," she said. "I could get as far crying into a rain barrel."

"Dealt and passed. So where is Steelgrave?"

"You ought to be glad wherever he is. He had to kill you. Or thought he had."

"You wanted me here, didn't you? Were you that fond of him?"

She blew cigarette ash off the back of her hand. A flake of it went into my eye and made me blink.

"I must have been," she said, "once." She put a hand down on her knee and spread the fingers out, studying the nails. She brought her eyes up slowly without moving her head. "It seems like about a thousand years ago I met a nice quiet little guy who knew how to behave in public and didn't shoot his charm around every bistro in town. Yes, I liked him. I liked him a lot."

A pet peeve of mine is what I regard as the overuse of the “PI Helper” character. The PI Helper is often used to simplify plotting by doing off camera some of the work that the PI might otherwise do, and perhaps more concerning, serve as a “firewall” between the PI and morally questionable things done in service of justice or resolution of the crime.

The problem with having the PI undertake shady things him or herself, of course, would be that the PI could lose stature in the reader’s eyes. Thus, the PI Helper tortures someone to get the information required to solve the mystery, or calls a favor in from the crime boss or murders the bad guy in cold blood.

Contrast this with characters like Hammett’s Sam Spade or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who in some sense have the courage of their convictions and don’t rely on others to do their dirty work. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, PIs like Chandler’s Marlowe who have such an (improbably) romantic or idealized view of the world that they would never condone those methods to resolve a case.

The character of Chris Duckworth in my novels is done as a sort of parody of the PI Helper. I keep threatening to have him in a scene with Riordan pumping iron at a gym like Hawk and Spenser do, but if you know Chris you know it would go a little differently.

Let me state for the record, by the way, that I love the books of all the authors I gave as examples, so I don’t regard the use of PI Helpers as a fatal flaw. It is something to be aware of, however.


A few books for further reading. As I said at the outset, I drew a lot of the ideas for these slides from Donna Levin’s book Get That Novel Written! If you liked the sections on POV and plot, in particular, I suggest you get a copy of her book to read more.

And, in the area of craft, I found that books on scriptwriting can often be helpful in clarifying or improving plot. I struggled mightily with the plot of my second novel, Vulture Capital, and didn’t really succeed in shaping it into a compelling arc until I went to the Screenwriting Workshop at The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and worked with screenwriter Judith Roscoe. (It must be acknowledged, however, that I still can’t screenwrite my way out of a paper bag. Screenwriting is not “just like writing a novel except all you have to do is the dialog.”)

In terms of recommended PI novels, if you haven’t read The Long Goodbye, you must do so posthaste. When Bruce Taylor ran the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, he had a sign under a stack of (ever-refreshed) Goodbye copies that read, “Best book in the store.” I agree with him.

Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a masterpiece, but I think The Glass Key is as good or maybe better and definitely deserves a read.

Finally, I think James Crumley is one of the most underrated living PI writers. I like the early Milo Milodragovitch novels best, so I’d recommend The Wrong Case and Dancing Bear as the place to start.

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