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Friday, June 11, 2010


It’s Book Club Friday at Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers, and today’s guest is Rob Walker, author of Children of Salem and Dead On, to name just a couple of his books. Today Rob is going to discuss dialogue and romance in his writing. You can find Rob at the Dirty Deed and Make Mine Mystery blogs and at his website. Rob is also giving away a copy of City of the Absent, historical fiction featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom, to one lucky blog reader. All you have to do to be eligible to win is post a comment. -- AP

Let’s start with the face but don’t forget the cuticles either.

Whose face? Why the face of the Speaker in the Rye, or rather the novel, and the features of the other speaker as dialogue means 2-logues, not one.  Facial expressions and features are a starting point. Squints, ticks, licking of lips – it all becomes part and parcel of how it all comes off the page like life itself or remains on the page like a dead, dehydrated piece of road kill.

In other words, it is not only what she says to him, but how he reacts to it; his facial expressions, his hands moving, his breathing, and then how she looks in reaction to his reaction.  In my Dead On I intended for the duo to have a Bogey and Bacall relationship while they are being hunted like animals!  In Children of Salem the lovers are a great deal more tentative with one another; after all, they have not seen one another for ten years as Jere went off to make his mark in order to feel worthy of her.

Nowadays we know so much about non-verbal communication in men and women, that in my humble opinion, after penning some fifty novels from the POV of the female lead and the male lead and many shared leads, I feel strongly about one element in all mysteries – that there be an element of love and romance afoot alongside the dastardly stuff.  That it is incumbent upon us writers of mystery to understand the greatest mystery of all is romance and historical romance. To that end we must absolutely get with the program and utilize from three to five non-verbal “triangulations” in a scene just as we would triangulate at least three to five senses in a scene.

In a dialogue scene eye contact is huge, facial expressions, big, sounds, sighs, rolling eyes, as well as gestures and even how a character sits, legs crossed or not, and how he stands, firm or shaky. Posture and proximity.  These are all key to making dialogue action rather than feeling like inaction. Think of those steamy scenes between Bogey and Bacall wherein she says so much with so little and he does likewise.

So what does science tell us about body language? Here is a pretty good list of items that I use as I write:

Non-verbal signs of Cooperation:  
Standing with feet apart, head tilted high
Direct eye-contact
Uncrossed legs and arms
Open arms and palms out
Finger to face (as opposed to hand covering face)

Hand covering mouth or shading eyes
Head down
Throat clearing

Need for reassurance:
Sucking on pen, pencil, glasses or other item
Clenched hands
Cuticle picking, biting nails
Hand to throat

Hands in pockets
Hands locked at back
Hand rubbing back of neck
Body twisted away
Stalling for time by cleaning glasses, pipe, rearranging, etc.

Hand to cheek
Chin stroking
Leaning forward
Scratching head

Hand over nose
Brow furrowed

Nail biting
Strained voice
Rapid eye movements

Open Gestures:
Eye contact
Affirmative head nods
Rubbing hands together
Interim phrases of agreement or acknowledgement (Eh? Uh-huh? Hmmm, oh, etc.)

Closed Gestures:
Leaning back (as opposed to forward)
Hand covering mouth
Peering over top of glasses

In other words, it is as important to see/hear what a character says but just as important to see and hear what is going on between the spoken lines, alternating with interesting actions the character is involved in and engaged in. This keeps the dialogue interwoven with the action, and the action engaged while speakers speak. Let your characters do the walking as well as the talking simultaneously as they have wine and a meal.

Action should not end when a character opens her mouth to “speak.” Same as with thinking; we are in real life normally involved in multi-tasking as we are thinking, no?  Same as when speaking. Your dialogue needs to walk; your dialogue requires legs. When the man says, “Lights, camera, action” include in that list “dialogue” but ratchet it UP!

Do leave your comments!  And thanks to Anastasia for having me!


Thanks for joining us today, Rob, and for providing our readers with both a sneak peek into how an author creates characters who come alive and a chance to win one of your books. -- AP



Gardens of the Heart said...

I've made a word copy so I can save this piece. Wonderful and I absolutely love how you explain things. Can you read me bedtime stories every night? You have a new reader.

Sharon Hamilton

jeff7salter said...

Great article. Excellent suggestions. You helped me see where some of my scenes fell flat. Thanks.
Jeff Salter

Janet said...

How interesting. I know what kind of books I enjoy more than others but had never taken the time to figure what was different. I am so glad you enlightened me and I will certainly be looking out for these. Thanks for sharing and I will also be on the look out for your books from now on.

Lee Lofland said...

This is a pretty good list, Rob. In fact, I used many of those indicators while interviewing criminal suspects and witnesses. Kinesics is fascinating. It's a great tool that helped me solve many, many crimes. Couldn't use it as part of my court testimonies, but it sure points you in the right direction. It also helped me know when our kids were telling fibs. They hated that I studied and taught the subject.

Chassily Wakefield said...

Great article and excellent reminder list, Rob, thank you for posting it! I printed it, too. :)

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post - I will be sending a link to some of my book club friends. It will take a very skilled author to incorporate this into the story but would defintely enhance the experience.

Helen Kiker

Rob Walker said...

Hey everyone -- so glad you liked the article; afraid a couple of typos or dropped letters here and there are all on my head. As I am in midst of writing Titanic 2012, it was a pleasure to take some time off and do something with a bit of CLOSURE. I am routinely each Friday at www.acmeauthorslink.blogspot.com and every couple Sats. at Make Mine Mystery... The Dirty Deeds-Advice if you google it is also a blog but one that is following my writing of 2012 Titanic -- an open book....ah Julia & Julia styled blog. I am preaching ebooks a great deal these days.

Lee - how do you like the TV program LIE to ME? I love it myself. Thanks for your great remarks here.


Lee Lofland said...

Rob, I've attempted to watch Lie To Me a couple of times, but couldn't really get into it. I'm sticking with The Andy Griffith Show for realistic police TV.

Kathy said...

Oh no, more books I want to read now. If I keep coming to this blog on Fridays, I will have to have my husband build more bookcases. Rob, don't bother preaching to me about e-books. I want the real thing in my hands. Love the feel and smell of real books.

Rob Walker said...

Lee - I opened Killer Instinct with a knock off of Andy Griffith, a small town sheriff who really knows his territory while everyone else is looking in the wrong place for poor missing Candy. It works well.
Kathy - I have been railing at the Research and Dev. team for Kindle to get those book smells and feels into the kindle device so that readers like you can have the wonderful experience of choose among "new book" odor, "used book mold" , "seaside surf", dank, Coppertone, Chlorine, or Chinook Winds as you read. So far, no luck.
I do know that I make more on a 2.99 Kindle sale than a $25.95 hardcover sale, and last month I sold 1000 copies of my books via Kindle and nothing via paper.

The future is to the swift!


Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

Good insight, here. Though I disagree that a mystery (or any other book, for that matter NEEDS an element of romance). This can be so distracting.

Theresa N. said...

I like for people to look me in the eye when talking to me, I really hate it when people keep their head down and mumble.
Theresa N

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Rob, thank you for sharing all that good info. What it boils down to is that mystery writers need to be psychicatrists as well as detectives, huh? So glad you sent me the blog link. And now I get to enter the drawing, too! What a deal!

J K Maze said...

A fascinating article and very helpful. I am going to be using your suggestions extensively. Thank you so much.

I also love your books.

Joan K. Maze

Kristie Cook said...

This is a great list! Thank you so much! I include a lot of gestures by imagining the actual discussion. But this is great for thinking about the meaning behind the gesture. As they say, body language speaks louder than a person's words and this should happen in our fictional worlds, as well. Thanks, again!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great list! I copied it too.

You always have a lot of great advice. Thanks, Rob.



Popping in to thank Rob for stopping by today and also let everyone know that Rob said he'd check back over the next few days in case anyone else posts a comment.

Check back tomorrow to see who the lucky winner of Rob's City of the Absent is. I also hope that some of you who discovered us for the first time today will drop in often. We have a wonderful line-up of guest authors scheduled for the rest of the year plus all sorts of other goodies from the American Woman editors each week.

Kttycat said...

Very educational. Thanks for sharing!

Shannon said...

Jessica Coran is one of my all-time faves and although I have CITY OF RANSOM and SHADOWS IN THE WHITE CITY, I have yet to read them. But I love your books and would love to add CITY OF THE ABSENT to add to my overgrown collection. I've yet to expand to the EDGE series, but soon, I promise.

shirley said...

great list. And while you are persuading Kindle to add old book smells, how about other fragrances as well to add to the story ... maybe flowers when describing a garden, steak at a cookout, diesel fumes when riding thru a city ... imagine the possibilities ;)

Rob Walker said...

Shirley - love the Read-Aroma idea; each scene getting its own odor; if ever you have been on a walking tour wherein you purchase a tape to listen to at each juncture, you get the idea only with odors at each juncture in the novel. Until technology takes that over, guess it is encumbent on the author to make the aroma come alive for the reader as in when Ransom hides among trash cans in a Belfast back alley in my WIP. Yes, I am reviving Ransom who is aka and hiding out in Belfast while Titanic is being built and of course he chases a killer-creature aboard and so it goes in 1912.
Shannon - my best work is The Edge Series, are you kidding? Well these books are more tightly written than are the Instinct titles, I think.
Everyone - so glad you all liked the list as I am a great believer in action lines in around and over and under dialogue lines.

As to romance in a mystery gone bad...yeah, it can be poorly woven in or it can be woven in so well as to enhance all. Again I raise the specter of the noir films. What lady wouldn't want a kiss from Robert Mitchum, eh?
Thanks for playing and good luck in the DRAWING everyone. Helen Kiker, I think you have won TWO of my titles at one time or another, right?


Patti said...

Wow Rob! This is absolutely invaluable information and you are so so generous in sharing it with all of us! Like Sharon Hamilton, I too plan to make a copy of this amazing list! I am so happy I stopped here today!
Thanks again Rob!
P.I. Barrington (Hope I didn't post this twice, lol!)

Rob Walker said...

Thanks Patti - mind if I copy past your response to this on my facebook page? Appreciate the positive feedback. As a prof. I don't always know if something is getting through; so glad you GET ME!