I’m still on the topic of fantastic dialogue, and still sucking wisdom out of Chris Roerden’s book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery. Today I’d like to discuss what Roerden calls Informational Dialogue. In genres that rely on intelligence gathering, writers can’t toss in scenes where data is the primary reason for dialogue. Data dispersal contains no conflict.
Roerden says, “Confirm that each scene has been built around opposing agendas… Put your characters in situations that produce anxiety. Making two characters focus on different priorities lets you write bypass dialogue: two people talking but not communicating.” Roerden goes on to say that transforming allies into adversaries also builds reader empathy for the protagonist. Remember to establish motive for the opposition, though, or you won’t pull it off. The reader needs to understand why the miscommunication exists, or they won’t believe it.
Another way to add tension to informational dialogue is to use unmet goals. Your protagonist needs to gather information to solve the crime. Any time he goes digging for information and comes up with nothing, that adds tension. You can’t play this every time, though, or you’ll never get the mystery solved, but used judiciously at a point where the stakes are high, this can create tons of conflict and mess with the reader’s nerves.
A third method is what Roerden calls “other business.” The protagonist is digging for information from a witness who is focused on something else: “other business.” Maybe they’re watching a football game on tv. Or trying to keep an eye on a rambunctious child. Or worried about how their spouse will react when he comes home and finds that dinner isn’t ready. Then, when the protagonist asks a question, the witness says something that could refer to either context: the protagonist’s question, or the “other business.” If you can fool the reader into believing the answer was directed at the protagonist, even for a few seconds, when it was actually directed at the “other business,” so much the better.
Finally, Roerden admits that not every development merits a scene of it’s own. She says, “Instead of inventing a situation solely to bring tension to an information exchange, try paring the information to its essentials and merging those essentials into another scene.” In other words, blurt it out quickly and move on to something more important or tension-filled. For example, if the protagonist needs a bit of information from a secretary, instead of outlining the entire phone call, go for something like this:
He called her.
“Sure, I’ve got that. Hang on.” A few seconds later, she came back. “The address is 1660 New Vines Road.”
Short, simple, tension-free, and on to better, more interesting things.
Challenge: use one or more of these methods to inject some tension into your informational dialogue.