We read thrillers because of the way they make us feel. Our hearts pound. Our blood races. We itch to turn each page. Sometimes, though, it’s hard for us to enjoy a good thriller without stimulating dialogue.
Susan Mills Wilson understands how hard it can be for authors to thread tension through their story from beginning to end. In this week’s blog post, Susan Mills Wilson details how she creates tension through dialogue.
Adding Sizzle to Dialogue
By Susan Mills Wilson
I love the recent Geico commercial where a Jason Bourne-like character receives a call on his cell phone. He thinks it is his partner coming to rescue him from the bad guys who are chasing him on top of a high-rise building. While his mother is talking about squirrels in the attic, the spy-guy single-handedly fends off the “muscle” sent to kill him. He tells Mom it’s a bad time and asks if he can call her back later. The conversation between the two is routine and ordinary. It is the action that piques our interest. This can be true in writing stories.
A writer can’t have car chases, explosions, fistfights, or murder in every scene, but it is important to have tension on every page. Imagine a man and a woman having a conversation in a restaurant. Their dialogue might be important to advance the storyline, but suppose their discussion is amicable, and even worse, there is no chemistry between them. Boring, huh? A writer can turn up the heat to make the scene more interesting by adding simple things. For instance, picture this scenario: Their server is the man’s ex-girlfriend. To make matters worse, she is still angry about their break-up and has been waiting for the opportunity to seek revenge. Do you think he is going to get the pasta he ordered set down on the table, or dumped in his lap?
If you’ve ever sat through a meeting, you know it can be dull. Your mind wanders and you hope you’re not asked a question because once the boss starts talking about unrealistic goals for next
year, you’ve already tuned him out. I don’t like to write dialogue between characters in an office unless it is a heated exchange or I can add something interesting like the distraction of a window washer hanging precariously on his platform.
In my latest novel, Meltdown , I have written about a conversation between two homicide detectives as they drive through traffic on their way to question someone about a shooting. There is nothing earth-shaking about their dialogue. My purpose is to reveal one of the detectives’ attraction to a beautiful female suspect. While his partner drives, he presses him about unflattering, sexist remarks made about the woman. However, his partner is determined to get off the subject by complaining about the driver ahead of him. He rants because the woman has plenty of time to make her left turn but waits to make her move in front of an approaching tractor-trailer just in the nick of time. He shouts at the lady, even though she can’t hear him. It is nothing more than simplistic nonsense to add a little punch to the scene.
Of course, dialogue itself can add tension. Because I write romantic suspense, I try to keep the sexual tension present not only in body language, but in spoken words. Even the tone makes a difference in setting the scene and the emotion. Sometimes there is a hidden meaning or double meaning in what the character says. In Meltdown, Detective Chris Lagoni is frustrated with Megan Moore, a beautiful young woman who has impeded his murder investigation at every turn. After he blows up at her for withholding information, she walks away in protest. He finds her meditating on her living room floor. He says to her, “Maybe it will help your inner peace if you just come clean.”
Dialogue also can be deceptive and throw us off scent. In another novel of mine, Her Lying Eyes, a Southern belle socialite makes sweet naïve remarks, looking more like Melanie Hamilton than the manipulative Scarlet O’Hara. She is never considered to be dangerous. In a twist near the end of the story, her claws come out.
Think about the impact of dialogue in movies. Everyone likes to recall favorite memorable lines. It is not only what is said, but what is happening at the time the actor gives the line. My favorite is from Jaws when Police Chief Brody says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The line is simple but says a lot. What makes the line so effective is the look on Brody’s face when he first gets a glimpse at the massive size of the great white shark.
It is a challenge for a writer to keep the tension going throughout the story, but as an author of gritty suspense, I feel an obligation to do so or end up disappointing my readers. I hope I always listen to my own advice: Turn up the heat to make the story sizzle, or risk having it sit on the back burner (or shelf, collecting dust).
Susan Mills Wilson is a native of North Carolina where she lives with her husband and pampered golden retriever. An avid football fan, she pulls for the Carolina Panthers as long as they’re winning. She cannot function or be approached by another human being until she has her morning coffee. In addition to writing gritty novels and short stories, she enjoys writing a blog on a range of topics. She is the leader of the Charlotte Writers Club Mystery Critique Group.
She has published three romantic suspense novels: Good Gone Bad, Her Lying Eyes, and Meltdown . Much of her research on law enforcement came from attending Killer Nashville and participating in three citizen police academies where she was given a certificate of completion, but thankfully no gun or shield. She is currently working on her fourth novel, Hunt for Redemption, which is due out later this year.
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