Dialogue tips from CSI

I’ve always believed that most writers have at least one element to writing or storytelling that they do naturally well. For me, it’s always been dialogue. When it comes to writing, I hear the story, from the characters’ mouths – what can I say, my head is full of British people. In any case because dialogue is a thing that comes readily for me as a writer, I have a hard time explaining how to write dialogue. But aspiring writers as me all the time so I put my thinking cap on and came up with five dialogue tips I learned from watching CSI (and really any of the three in the franchise would do).

1. Don’t over use character names - This could also be called the Peppermint Patty syndrome, “How are you doing, Chuck? Don’t you want to come to the party, Chuck?” But in CSI, in particular Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami does this all the time. He overuses character names and it’s annoying and distracting. “What do you think, Mr. Wolff?” “I don’t know, but we’ll find out, Mr. Wolff.” Who talks like that?! When you’re in a scene and you have two or more characters talking to one another you don’t need to continue to have them address one another by their names. Consider your own conversations, how often do you actually use someone’s name? Not often unless you are doing so for emphasis. It’s a rare occasion for me to call my husband by his first name. Do the same in your dialogue, keep it to a minimum and only use it for the occasional pop.

2. Don’t have characters talk about stuff they already know – “Remember Joan when Aunt Sally died and she told us about the treasure map in the garage, we should go after it.” This happens in CSI all the time, they rehash evidence and how things are done in the lab even though they would clearly know how to do those things if they actually work in a lab. It’s to convey information to the audience, but it’s not done cleverly. The dialogue isn’t working as hard as it can. You have to work harder to get the information on the page rather than have characters rehash information they already know. *as a bonus tip, this can also be used when you’re writing descriptive narrative. For instance, your heroine isn’t going to notice every piece of furniture in her living room because she sees it everyday, but she might notice the cigarette burns on the arm rest that act as a constant reminder to her abusive husband.

3. Don’t go for the cheap laugh or pun – If you’re a CSI watcher you know what I’m talking about here. It happens right before the first commercial break, right before the theme songs kick in. All three shows do it though the original is the worst. You know it’s the dead horse jockey at the opening and the dialogue goes something like this:

“I wonder who killed him.”
“I don’t know, but it’s going to be a race to finish line.”

Clearly none of you write that badly, but keep in mind that you don’t want to go for the cheap thrill. Unless of course the puniness fits one of your characters, you want to make sure you don’t go down the cheesy road.

4. Don’t have them talk about stuff that makes no difference to the story – I suppose this might serve a purpose on CSI to create red herrings, but for the most part having your character talk ad nauseam about stuff that doesn’t pertain to the action of the story is, well, unnecessary. Like other details in your book, you want your dialogue to propel the plot forward so skip the niceties and the random conversations that mean nothing and focus on the story at hand.

5. Skip the musical montage – Well obviously our books come without soundtracks, but you know those scenes I’m talking about? The ones usually in the lab where we’ve got the groovy music going and we’re seeing all the technical stuff that the CSI’s are working on. Consider those long passages of introspection a writer’s musical montage. Narrative is needed, but break things up, especially if you have more than one character in a room, you certainly don’t want two pages of introspection in the middle of a conversation. Your readers will forget what the characters were talking about. 

Okay so a little tongue in cheek, but you get the drift. Dialogue is crucial to character-driven fiction and something all writers should learn to do well. Other tips you can try is finding a good show to watch and just listen to the dialogue – anything by Aaron Sorkin (he’s a dialogue wizard), old episodes of Friends any of the Oceans movies though Oceans 11 is particular good. Listen to how the characters bounce lines back and forth and how the dialogue moves the story forward. You can also read your dialogue aloud or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you, that way you can hear what’s stilted and you’ll also catch missing words.

**blog post originally posted at Savvy Author blog**