Dialogue III

Mysteries always involve question-and-answer sessions, usually between the person trying to solve the mystery and any suspects or witnesses that come along. In my on-going study of writing excellent dialogue, I discovered that even these question-and-answer sessions should include tension.

Chris Roerden, in her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery, says, “Any ordinary, amiable question-and-answer sequence can be given an adversarial flavor by having characters interrupt each other, answer a question with a question, give an unexpected response, and change the subject. Kill the words “yes,” “okay,” and “I agree,” even when no disagreement exists. Merely the sound of an affirmative can breed a congenial, agreeable tone that takes the steam out of any encounter.”

When the sap being questioned is a shady character, then the reader expects some tension in any conversation with the police (or PI, or amateur sleuth). But when the interviewee is a friendly witness, an upstanding member of the community, an innocent bystander, how do you incorporate tension?

Roerden says, “create disagreement and suspicion among your characters. Invent misunderstanding. Encourage misinterpretation. Add distraction.”

Maybe something in the witness’ past causes her to mistrust police officers. Her answers might be ambiguous or down-right misleading because of this mistrust.

Maybe she’s romantically interested in the questioner, and will incorporate flirtation into her answers, making them not quite so truthful.

Maybe she’ll completely misunderstand the question and give an incorrect answer based on that misunderstanding.

Maybe she needs to be somewhere in ten minutes. She’ll try to hurry things along, offering curt answers, thinking of this appointment instead of concentrating on the questions.

I could play this game for hours, but you get the drift. Give the witness a motivation, and her personality will shine through her answers and lend conflict to an otherwise simple scene which needs to disseminate information or a lack of information.

More on this in the next post. For what it’s worth.


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