I first met Andrew Welsh-Huggins when he spoke years ago to our local Sisters in Crime chapter. At the time Andrew was beginning his long-running Andy Hayes series, based in Columbus, Ohio, and featuring a disgraced-football-player-turned-private-eye. My appreciation for his skill as a writer grew exponentially in 2017 when he won the Al Blanchard Prize for Best Short Crime Fiction. There, at Crime Bake, Andrew read an excerpt from his winning story, an excerpt that was nearly pure dialogue. If he included a tag or two, I missed them; and yet I had no trouble knowing who was speaking. I sat there listening, mesmerized by the spare elegance of the writing—and the depth of the subtext he was able to convey in such few words. I was hooked.
Now Andrew has agreed to share some of his dialogue secrets with us!
Let’s Talk: A Few Thoughts About Dialogue
When reading fiction or creative nonfiction, nothing is more enjoyable than when the dialogue crackles and pops, pulling a reader along, and nothing is more disappointing than when dialogue, usually in long, unbroken blocks, brings the narrative to a halt.
For me, creating realistic dialogue that furthers the plot while entertaining readers has been the goal in multiple short stories; in my Andy Hayes private eye series, where Andy often leavens tense situations with pithy, quick-witted remarks; and in my standalone crime novel, The End of The Road¸where conversations are rapid, tense, and contribute to an underlying sense of urgency.
Based on years of trial and error, here are three rules I follow when writing dialogue in both stories and novels.
No dialogue dumping.
We’ve all had the experience of watching an exciting movie and then suddenly checking our watches when a character, usually a bad guy, begins to monologue. Windy summary speeches are easier to get away with in print, but the problem remains.
In my own writing, as soon as I come across a quote in a WIP that goes on for much longer than three or maybe four sentences, I almost always break it up, interrupting the verbose speaker with a simple question from another character, such as “So?” or “Why?” or “What’s that supposed to mean?” Not only does this give the reader a chance to breathe, it also contributes to an elevated pace as the conversation flows along like a stream instead of pooling into a dam.
Strive for realism, not real life.
One of my favorite writing exercises is eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations in a non-creepy way, like listening in on a discussion at a neighboring restaurant table or monitoring an exchange between people in line at the grocery store. It’s a valuable education in determining the way people really talk, absorbing the natural ebb and flow of chitchat, as opposed to what sometimes comes across as stilted fictional dialogue. Just don’t take this too far.
Imitating actual conversation on the page can be a recipe for disaster since even the greatest orators fill their thoughts with countless uses of “you know?”, “um,” “okay,” and more. Creating realistic dialogue is a matter of conveying ideas the way people might talk, absent all the usual tics, not the way they do.
For example, someone in real life might say, “The thing is, I, you know, thought about … and, well, Maggie and me, anyway, we finally came to the conclusion—I’m not saying it was, um, actually, a good one—but, well, you know, to off him.”
Instead, how about: “Maggie and I thought about it. We thought hard. And in the end, we came to the same conclusion, right or wrong. He had to go.”
The inclination to tuck a “he said” or “she said” after quotes is understandable but in most cases unnecessary. It can also be distracting, as I discovered recently reading a best-selling author’s book that was larded with superfluous attribution to the point it diminished my enjoyment of an otherwise fantastic thriller.
With this in mind, I would venture to say that, at a minimum, half of such attribution can be eliminated. If a writer is doing a good job distinguishing between characters and their speaking patterns, a reader can easily follow several lines of unattributed, back-and-forth dialogue. If you’re looking for a rule of thumb, I would recommend inserting a character-orienting reference every five or six quotes, along the lines of, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Calvin said, worried that Hobbes was clueless about the danger he was in.
On a related note, there is almost no reason to ever use anything other than “said” in quote attribution. No “he equivocated,” “she protested,” “he denied,” “she demanded,” and my all-time (least) favorite, “he smiled.”
In other words, “Keep it simple,” he said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the Shamus, Derringer, and International Thriller Writers-award-nominated author of the Andy Hayes Private Eye series and editor of Columbus Noir. His stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine, the anthology The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, and many other magazines and anthologies. His nonfiction book, No Winners Here Tonight, is the definitive history of the death penalty in Ohio. Kirkus calls his new crime novel, The End of The Road, “A crackerjack crime yarn chockablock with miscreants and a supersonic pace.”
The End of the Road by Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a crime novel telling the story of Penny, a young woman on a solo journey of revenge after her boyfriend is shot and left for dead. As Penny relentlessly hunts Pryor, the one-eyed villain who wounded her boyfriend, she inadvertently crosses paths with J.P., an Ohio sheriff’s deputy carrying his own baggage. Despite Penny and J.P.’s differences, they join forces to stop Pryor once and for all.