Saturday, August 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Writing Authentic Dialog That Hooks a Reader

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Eight (+ one re-submit)

RESUBMIT: There's new text up on an old post--the synopsis/outline critique from late last year. Pop on over and scroll to the bottom of the original post if you're curious how the writer revised.

Note: Right now I'm booked up to October 5 on submissions. I'll try to double up on the weekends when I can to clear out the queue, but I'm also currently swamped with other writer and day job responsibilities. Sorry about that, guys! I'll get to them all soon as I can.

This week’s questions:

Does the dialogue feel authentic and natural? And, is this enough of a "hook" for the first scene of a crime novel?

Market/Genre: Suspense/thriller


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Opening scene of my suspense/thriller novel about a cynical cop who's after the tech-savvy serial killer who has just kidnapped his 8th victim (who happens to be the pregnant wife of a fellow cop).

122nd Precinct


Sergeant Kathleen McRaven exhaled and slumped into the folds of her chair. She stared at the sea of paperwork strewn across her desk and slowly lifted her gaze, which settled on the haunted face of Police Officer Mark Bigelow.

“Mark, I know this is hard for you to believe, but we will find Karen. We—”

“Sergeant,” he said, cutting her off by chopping at the air between them with his hand, “I may be new to the force, but even a high school kid knows this guy never lets them go. So, if you don’t mind, I’d rather see you drop the bullshit and get your ass out in the field. With all due respect.”

“Mark, I don’t blame you for being rude. Hell, I wish I’d had the balls to talk to a superior officer like that when I was fresh out of the Academy. But, for the first time in quite a while, we do have a sound lead that looks promising.”

“Who? Where?”

“We’ve spoken to a woman who may have seen something—”

“You’ve got to let me help, Sergeant.”

“I can’t let you get involved.”

She pulled herself out of the chair and walked around to the other side of the desk.

“Please trust me, Mark. Take a few days off and let us handle it, OK?”

“By handle it,” he said, rising abruptly, causing his chair tip backward and crash onto the floor, “you mean you’ll watch the disgusting video he’s going to send. I know all about that. Everyone knows. Tomorrow morning, you’ll receive the video in an e-mail, and no one will be able to figure out where he sent it from. Then, in a few weeks, a group of stoned out teenagers will find pieces of Karen on a beach or in an alley somewhere. This animal’s smarter than all of us and we’re never going to catch him!”

My Thoughts in Purple:

122nd Precinct

Sergeant Kathleen McRaven exhaled and slumped into the folds of her chair. She stared at the sea of paperwork strewn across her desk and slowly lifted her gaze, which settled on the haunted face of Police Officer Mark Bigelow.

“Mark, I know this is hard for you to believe, but we will find Karen. We—”

“Sergeant,” he said, cutting her off by chopping at the air between them with his hand, [“I may be new to the force,] This felt a little too on the nose but [even a high school kid knows] is this case so widely known that students would actually be following it? this guy never lets them go. So, if you don’t mind, I’d rather see you drop the bullshit and get your ass out in the field. With all due respect.”

I wanted some internalization from her here to show how she feels about all of this “[Mark,] Feels awkward with the name here I don’t blame you for being rude. Hell, I wish I’d had the balls to talk to a superior officer like that [when I was fresh out of the Academy.] Since this repeats him being new, perhaps keep this and cut the other reference in the previous paragraph. Feels more natural here But, [for the first time in quite a while] not sure about this line. If she's trying to reassure him, why remind him they've had no leads for a while?, we do have a sound lead that looks promising.” Another good opportunity for internalization. Is she frustrated they haven't gotten any leads in a while? Could she think about how hard this has been instead of telling him?

“Who? Where?”

“We’ve spoken to a woman who may have seen something—” Perhaps have her consider if she should say anything here? She must know he's going to want to act and why he can't.

“You’ve got to let me help, Sergeant.”

“I can’t let you get involved.” There's potential more some great conflict here, but I'm not yet feeling it. Does she want to let him help? Is she worried he'll do something and blow the only lead they've had in ages?

She [pulled herself out of the chair] This feels a little overwritten and walked around to the other side of the desk.

“Please trust me, Mark. Take a few days off and let us handle it, OK?”

“By handle it,” he said, rising abruptly, causing his chair tip backward and crash onto the floor, “you mean you’ll watch the disgusting video he’s going to send. [I know all about that. Everyone knows.] Not sure you need Tomorrow morning, you’ll receive the video in an e-mail, and no one will be able to figure out where he sent it from. Then, in a few weeks, a group of stoned out teenagers will find pieces of Karen on a beach or in an alley somewhere. This animal’s smarter than all of us and we’re never going to catch him!”

The questions:

Does the dialogue feel authentic and natural?

Mostly. There were a few spots here and there that felt like information as dialog, but otherwise it read smoothly. I think the second mention about fresh out of the Academy works better to show Mark is new than his line of "I may be new to the force," so you might consider cutting Mark's line.

I also wasn't sure about how free she was with the information. If she's trying to reassure him they'll catch this guy and find the wife, would she really say they hadn't had a lead in a while? Wouldn't that make him worry? And would she have any reservations at all about telling him information about the case he shouldn't be involved in? Some of that felt like information for the reader's benefit. Though if she thought it, it would feel natural.

I'd suggest adding some internalization in that area to help readers understand how she feels about this. I wanted to know if she was conflicted over telling him anything, if she felt she was doing the right thing, if she was actually worried they weren't going to find this guy. Right now there's nothing personal from the protagonist to let me know who she is or how she feels.

I don't think you need a lot, but a thought here and there would add to the conflict and give readers something to connect with Kathleen better.

(More on infodumps through dialog here)

Is this enough of a "hook" for the first scene of a crime novel?
Yes and no. This is a matter of personal taste, and admittedly I only read a few crime novels a year, so readers chime in here. I'd read on because it's well written and I like this type of story, but right now there's nothing hooking me per se. For me, I'm not yet connecting to Kathleen or to Mark, but I'd read more until I got to the meat of the story where she starts investigating. I'd give it a few more pages to grab me because I feel like this is still setup.

One thing that makes me feel this way is that I'm thrown into the problem a little too fast and I had no time to care about either of these characters. Mark's worry over his wife is understandable, but he's pretty rude to Kathleen and that doesn't make me like him. Kathleen is a blank slate and I have no idea how she feels, so there's nothing to grab me there either. The wife is already missing, so there's no ramp up to make me worry about her. I also don't know her, so it's hard to worry about her as well.

However, I also know that crime fiction tends to be a little more detached and plot focused, so if the crime is intriguing to the reader they'll probably keep reading. If I'd picked this up because I liked the cover copy, then I'd read on.

Overall, I think injecting a little emotion into this would give readers a character to connect with and the desire to see them win. They'd care more about these two characters, feel that Kathleen cared about catching the killer and saving Karen, and that she felt some kind of obligation to Mark. You don't need to bog it down, as that could risk the tone of the crime novel, but add just enough that readers can feel Kathleen cares about what she's doing and isn't just doing her job.

(More on opening hooks here)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

14 comments:

  1. Right now, I don't know whose story this is - they both have equal weight. Interior dialogue will deal with that but there should be more passion and tension. The last person Kathleen would want to see right now is the latest victim's husband and he must be in psychological shock. I can't see why she would give him any information about leads. Wouldn't she call on support from Human Resources or whoever to get him away and get him the support he needs? Having said that, I think the writing is fluid and the dialogue - other than giving away a bit to much information - well paced and convincing.
    Would I read on? Yes, even as it stands but with revision definitely.

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  2. Janice, thank you so much for your invaluable suggestions. I was second-guessing myself on the very issues you mentioned. I do need to work on Kathleen's internal conflict, and more thoroughly demonstrate her feelings of concern and dismay about the unspeakable situation Mark is facing. Your thoughts on his attitude are equally helpful, and I plan to fine-tune his dialogue (and cut the redundant phrase you pointed out). I'm heading 'back to the drawing board' right now! Again, I can't thank you enough for your help. Oh, and thank you, bridgetwhelan, for your useful feedback. I appreciate it!

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  3. Great job Kelly Marino! I would cut the sentences after the one mentioning the disgusting video. If you just drop that without any other explanation of it, that would hook me right away.

    "Disgusting video? OMG!" Would be my reaction. I would read on just to find out more--but I don't want it right away. The rest of his comments about the video not only water down the impact, but he is saying information that both characters already know, so it doesn't feel natural to the scene, it's purely to "tell" us some backstory.

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  4. leslie, that's a great point! I think I will drop the line after the disgusting video. It hadn't occurred to me that leaving the subject in the air might cause a reader to gasp, "OMG! What disgusting video?" Your 'fresh eyes' see things I don't, and I'm grateful for your input!

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  5. Kelly, good work. I have a couple of comments, I hope you don't mind. In the first sentence you give both characters their full names and titles. I would suggest you try to work that information into the story more naturally. And I want to know why she exhaled and slumped - was he exhausted? Worried? If it's because of the sea of paperwork, perhaps that could come first. Or if its Mark's entrance, put that first. Cause and then effect.

    I also agree with Janice that you need more internalisation. To be honest, I didn't realise that Mark was the husband of the missing wife until I read it in Janice's notes (it's early morning here, lol) so I couldn't understand his justification for rudeness or hers for submitting so meekly to it.
    Sometimes a little telling of backstory can help for the idiots like me in the back row! ;-)

    But having said all of that, I really want to know if he gets his wife back alive.

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  6. Sorry for the typos there! "Was *she* exhausted?"

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  7. I'm not the world's biggest crime novel reader, though I tend to love watching a mind-bending suspense show.

    So right now I'd say this sample seems like it's more Mark's story than Kathleen's, or at least I have more of a desire to see things transpire through Mark since his situation is so much more tension-filled.

    The internalization suggested could help get more tension back in Kathleen's corner.

    The suggestion to cut the details after the "disgusting tape" part would have me flipping pages like a mad woman. Talk about a major gripping note.

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  8. When I write dialogue, I always try to keep to a back-and-forth pattern - paragraph 1 is Person A, paragraph 2 is Person B, paragraph 3 is back to Person A, and so on.

    So the three paragraphs where Kathleen says "I can't let you get involved," then pulls herself out of the chair, then says "Please trust me" - I'd combine those into one paragraph.

    As a non-dialogue-related suggestion, I find that similar names tend to make me confuse characters with each other, and you've got two women starting with "Ka-". I've come across articles about naming your characters that bring up this point so I know I'm not alone on this.

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  9. I really liked the opening, I think it's quite strong. You've set up a high-stakes situation, so well done. A few nit- picks - I think the first line would read fine without "the folds" of her chair, the chair alone is good.

    Secondly, as Sergeant Kathleen is trying to contain a hyper- emotional subordinate, the continued use of his name is justified. It's an effective counselling technique, repeating a person's name draws their attention to what you're saying when the listener is upset. It also can establish the speaker's authority/ power on a subconscious level. However, in normal conversation it can come across as condescending or forced. Your call.

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  10. Dear Sarah, Angela, Yvonne, and Jo: You all have given me some terrific ideas for 'fixing' this opening, and I can't thank you enough. The Other Side of the Story is, in my humble opinion, the very best and most informative writer's blog on the web. You are wonderful people who care deeply about helping a fellow writer, and I couldn't ask for more. I have created a Word document into which I copied and pasted every comment and suggestion; this patchwork of great ideas will definitely serve as a guide for all of my chapters, not just the first. You have helped me achieve several “Eureka! moments,” and I’m in your debt!

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  11. I was a little confused by the timeline in your opening. Kathleen refers to the first lead they have had in quite a while, which implies the wife has been gone for a long time. But Mark states that by tomorrow morning they will have a disgusting video in hand. Maybe he is just afraid of the worst case scenario, but it reads like he knows that the wife's time is almost up. It took me out of the story. How long is the killer keeping these women for? Does the killer follow a specific timeline? How long has the wife been missing? Does Kathleen have only a few hours to find her intact? I don't think you will have much trouble fixing this; it is a just a detail to clarify and keep consistent.

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  12. Dear Amy,
    Thanks for reading and pointing out yet another wrinkle I need to iron. The wife got kidnapped the previous evening (I make this clear later in the chapter) and the killer keeps his victims alive for 3 days (this also comes up later in the chapter), so the NYPD—and the husband, Mark—know that time isn’t on their side. I’ll clean up that confusion on my final edit…thanks again for helping me bring it all together.
    You're a peach!

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  13. Hi Kelly, nice writing. I agree with all the other critiques I have read, mine is strictly from the POV of working in law enforcement for the last 8 years.

    Officers are people; Sargent’s are very important people. They outrank every detective and only report to Lieutenants who are just below captains, just below commanders, deputy chiefs, Chief. So five phone calls then Chief. Rank is everything; Officer Bigelow could be a PI, PII, PIII, same with the Sargent, I, II, III. The day of hire could have one officer outrank the other, Monday outranks Tuesday, I have seen this discussed in the field.

    A Sargent can put an officer on suspension or reassignment without consulting anyone. That is a lot of direct power to have over the officer and I am not feeling that. She could swat his punk ass right out of there and everyone would know he got sent home.

    You may have a situation where there was a family or familial tie between the two before Officer Bigelow came on the force that could add some “out of bounds” language but never “get off your ass” phrases.

    Officer Bigelow has ben called into Sgt. McRaven’s office, I need to feel him on that.

    Sgt. McRaven obviously cares about her people. His thoughts could reveal this. She could give him a special assignment that roundabout brings him into the case; officers are often tasked with undercover work.

    The white lines, those funny things between the black type. Now here is where you can build the undercurrent of tension. She would not talk out of the side of her mouth as much as try to feed him information on the sly.

    I could see this scene entirely from Officer Bigelow’s POV. He talked to coworkers before he went in and while there has to take in the official department stance regarding the investigation. The white lines can communicate as far as your skills will take them. Based on what I read you have what it takes. Write on.

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  14. Dear Harry, I appreciate your taking the time to clarify the facts about law enforcement hierarchy. I really need suggestions from an ‘insider,’ and I feel that this opening chapter could use your perspective on how cops operate. Thanks so much for your help. You have no idea how many "Cop Forums" I have visited, looking for insights into your fascinating personal lives and professional responsibilities. Alas, I have been unable to find out much about the different types of Sergeants—plain clothes vs. desk, for example—and what functions a plain clothes Sgt. would perform in the field. One interesting thing I’ve learned, however, is that cops on TV do not always behave the way they’re portrayed in the real world (and that makes it difficult for a fiction writer to separate facts from fiction). One cop on a forum I visited ranted about how detectives on TV order uniformed officers around like underlings; he said that NO real detective has authority over cops wearing uniforms. But you have straightened me out on a very important issue and I’m grateful!

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