Thoughts on Dialogue & How Espionage Fiction Sometimes Does Stuff Better

(Ha!  I forgot to do spellcheck before I went trigger-happy with the publish button!  Sorry if you got that version first.)  You know, I think I actually watch more movies than I do read novels, and I’m not sure if that’s exactly a great thing, considering I’m supposed to be a writer (of novels).  However, when I’m watching movies now I’m not just in it for the entertainment.

When you start learning to write a novel you also start to look at the world differently because you want to know how great stories come to life and how to write them yourself.  You do so more critically and analytically.  You begin to ask more questions, smarter questions.  Why was that line so particularly witty?  How did they get the dialogue to always maintain that sharp quality of wit?  Where did they get the idea for that scene?  How did the writers figure out how to tie all of these details together so beautifully?

Yesterday I went to the store with my mom and they just so happened to be selling a bunch of (actually) really good movie titles for just $5 each.  When I got home I decided to watch Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig playing James Bond, and before I even popped the DVD in I realized just how much I loved that film.  Some of it’s ridiculously over the top and unnecessary, like the opening scenes–the part I call “where Bond runs like a black man,” haha (I mean why climb up, only to come back down again?)–but even that was wonderful to watch.  I mean, that man Bond was chasing could move.  He was a freakin’ monkey!

One reason I love this movie is because, well, it’s got espionage, action and adventure–hello!  Best combination in the world!  Also, this is the kind of novel I’m working on.  (Though, I admit, the espionage bit of my WIP is just as unlikely to happen in real life as in most of Bond’s adventures, but that’s exactly why people watch it, I think, because it is so outlandish.  Though, I must say, Casino Royale is considerably more believable than its predecessors–probably because, for one, the gadgets are so much more realistic).

Another reason I like the film is because of the dialogue.

I’ve noticed something happening a lot in espionage fiction.  I’ve only read five books in this genre (one a Le Carre that I couldn’t finish because I really found it to be too dense for my taste, and a sixth I got distracted from and must return to soon), but every single one of them seems to excel in the dialogue department.  And when I compare them to most fantasy or scif-fi novels I read…well, there really isn’t any comparison.

One of the reasons I think the dialogue in espionage novels is so good in comparison is because characters are able to make rapid-fire and/or offhand remarks referring or alluding to actual historical figures and events: the Cold War, Jesus Christ–“Christ!” is a popular expletive, particularly in Brit lit, that’s often used in the most amusing of ways–World War II, Hitler… Those seem to be the most popular, and one can see why: they are some of the most influential events and persons the world’s ever seen.  M does this near the beginning of Casino Royale when she starts talking about how much grief 007 always gives her; she says:

I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.

This ability to reference and allude to real-life events lends the espionage genre a certain propensity for richness and nuance that’s hard to duplicate in science fiction and fantasy stories where the setting is a make-believe world, simply for the fact that it allows writers to play with what readers are already familiar with.  It’s like telling an inside joke; in order to get the punchline you assume that your audience is already “in the know” and therefore will be able to “get” what you’re talking about.  It’s a mighty convenient platform to build on.

When you’re writing fantasy set in a secondary world of your own making, though, you simply don’t have this kind of luxury.  Not to the same extent, anyway.  So I’ve been wondering how, then, can a writer get this same quality of dialogue when s/he’s starting off with a much more meager shared base of knowledge with his/her readers?

Why Building a History Can Do Your Story a Favor

If you get into deep worldbuilding for your novel and create your own world, there’s always the possibility that you might go overboard with it.  Of course.  However…if you’re smart about what you choose to develop and what to leave alone, it can most certainly be used to your advantage.

(This would be so much more convenient to write about if I was already published, heh, but I’ll do my best without giving too much away.)

Say you’ve built this world, right, and you’ve come up with some figures who’ve left their mark on history.  If they’re dead and long-gone, how do you still manage to bring their influence and characters to life on the page?

For one, just having your characters making mere references to them is enough to bring those figures into existence.  In my story there’s a woman who has become notorious for her treachery as a double agent, and I’ll just call her Agent Feruupa for now (I’ve talked about her here before, actually).  In everyday speech her name has become synonymous with treason and is even used in part as a noun.  “The Feruupa Fiasco,” one of my characters calls her betrayal (only because she actually got caught).  Sometimes characters, when they’re speaking about someone treacherous, might even say something like, “She pulled a Feruupa on him.”

If you can build a character, even a dead one, that is unique to your world’s history and represents something larger then introduce them to readers naturally over time and use them in a way that is relevant to the plot and themes of your story…then I think you have a chance at weaving that much more richness and realism into your tale.

That’s my theory, anyway.

One Last Look At Casino Royale’s Dialogue

There’s something else this movie does with its dialogue that I find particularly attractive: subtlety.  Sometimes its better not to say precisely what you mean because taking the indirect route may actually have a stronger effect.  Take this line, for instance, where M has just had Bond injected with a tracking device.  (This is only shown, not explained.)  What does he say instead of going for the obvious and just asking, “Is that a tracking device?”

So you can keep an eye on me?

More words, but in the end I think it works so much better because it also reveals some of that wry character we’ve come to love about Bond.

This may seem like a very insignificant thing, but I feel that many times as a writer it is all too easy to take the obvious, easy approach to crafting dialogue.  If you ever come across a line you’ve written that just seems too straightforward and bland, consider a more indirect way to say it–and always try to write in character.  I think this is a great way to deal with scenes that are meant to be emotionally gripping, tender, or perhaps intimate–like in the middle of a romance.  Sometimes even saying nothing at all and opting to describe body language is better than having a character utter what could come across as cheesy or insincere.  (Unless, of course, that’s what you are going for.)

Just something to think about!

What tricks have you learned about writing better dialogue?

Personally, I love writing dialogue.  That’s really your chance to let much of your characters’ personalities shine through.  I also love paying attention to body language and portraying that across the page.  Movies have the advantage in that you actually see all of this happening, so to be able to capture some of this in written form is both challenging and fun, I think.

Have you any insights you’d like to share?  Also, have you considered any of these techniques before?  Do you think they’ve helped you to write better dialogue?  Lastly, are there any writers in particular who inspire you by their dialogue?  (I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s lengthier dialogue style, actually, and I hope one day I’ll be able to capture audiences with just as much wit and insight into the human condition as he!)


11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Dialogue & How Espionage Fiction Sometimes Does Stuff Better

  1. Great examples! Casino Royale was my favorite bond movie yet. I never paid attention to the dialogue but you’re right, it is quite cheeky, and fits perfectly with the characters we’ve gotten to know.

    I write a lot of dialogue, but I struggle with it too. I try to examine if it’s something a character might say, but beyond that, I don’t know 😀 I’m not that witty.


    • And I think that’s a great way to approach dialogue: through the eyes of your characters. If you don’t understand your characters, then it’s hard to write what they might say!

      I’m not sure I’m a very witty writer either (someone else would have to be the judge there), but I suspect I may have my moments, heh. If I could only have more of them and learn to channel that ability…that would be nice.

      Haha, here’s a twist on Bond’s famous “shaken, not stirred” line from the movie:

      Bond: “Vodka martini.”
      Waiter: “Shaken or stirred?”
      Bond: (frowning) “Do I look like I give a damn?”

      Love it!


  2. I love writing dialog as well. For me, it’s about getting into the scene, picturing it and knowing my characters. Dialog should sound real and appropriate for the character’s age, cultural background, life experiences. Emphasizing the real. It needs to sound something someone would actually say. That’s why I do a read-aloud editing pass, despite the extra time it takes.

    I liked what you said about body language. That’s a great way to ‘show’ emotion instead of using adverbs or dialog tells. I was a theatre minor back in they day, so I’m always picturing the way the character’s move and any physical business they might be doing.

    Writing is always a learning process though. I hope to do better at ‘oblique’ dialog in my new book. I liked your mention of how some characters talk about something without talking about. I need to work on that.

    Finally, my favorite dialog writers are David Mamet, the great Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler.


    • Theatre! There was a time I thought I wanted to go into that but then decided I was too shy, heh.

      I tend to visualize my characters like that, as well, as I’m writing a scene. My motto for writing now has become: “If I can’t see it, I can’t write it.” And it’s really true.

      Actually, just this morning I got an idea for a future scene I’d like to write in a sequel–the opening chapter, in fact–and I acted it out on my voice recorder so I wouldn’t forget it, lol. Sometimes I do that and then go back and transcribe it onto paper or a Word document later, put it aside, and go back to work on the first novel. Works for more impromptu dialogue ideas, I guess.

      I “saw” it audibly first, so now I can write it when it’s time!


      • “My motto for writing now has become: ‘If I can’t see it, I can’t write it.’ And it’s really true.”

        Very true. I sometimes do floor plans, so that I know where the doors and windows are, the furniture, etc. (Particularly important when writing mystery stories, of course, since the solution that the detective comes up with has to actually work. 🙂 )


        • You know what’s funny? (Confession!) I studied interior design and we had to draft a lot of floor plans; visual-spatial skills are pretty important there, so I tend to have a good sense of space and location when I’m writing about buildings, at least. Though, I came to one part in my story, nearing the end, where I thought I could just take things easy and wing it…

          Nuh-uh. When my characters started running around like, “Where are we? Why are we in this room?” Heh, I knew something had to give. (They were on a warship…of sorts.)

          Ha! I really should have known better. -_- Finding and comparing plans of existing types of ships–because none were quite what I had in mind for my made-up one–turned out to be very helpful, in that case. 🙂 (I was nearing the end of the story and got kind of lazy, haha. Of course, I sure paid for it later; that portion sucked!)


  3. All good thoughts on dialog. I don’t have much to add at this time… I can’t say I’m a terrific writer of dialog (I mean, I’m not saying I’m bad, I’m saying I can’t say, because I’ve never had anyone comment on my dialog so I just don’t know). One technique that I’ve occassionally used that can do the trick: read your dialog aloud. If it sounds wrong in your own ears it will sound wrong to your readers, and hearing it can help you notice that.


    • I think that’s very helpful. It’s something Mark does, as well. It can be fun, too!

      “Voice acting” your characters’ lines might also help to develop their unique voices–if not make you look a little crazy, lol. I know I change dialogue sometimes because it’ll dawn on me that it doesn’t sound very in-character for whoever I’m writing about. Staying true to a character, especially if they’re really different from you in their beliefs and likes, can be real challenging.


  4. I think you can learn a lot about writing from movies. I’ve talked on my blog about how I’ve learned more about writing from Robert Altman’s movies than I’ve ever learned from any writer. And one great advantage of studying movie dialogue is that people have to actually speak the words. Lines that can’t be spoken convincingly get cut in a movie, whereas I’ve read a lot of dialogue on the page that just made be cringe because I couldn’t imagine anybody actually saying those words.

    And, frankly, the standard for sharp, witty, crackling dialogue is still the movies of Howard Hawks (usually working with Jules Furthman and/or Leigh Brackett): His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Only Angels Have Wings, etc. Why does Empire Strikes Back have the best dialogue of any Star Wars film? Written by Leigh Brackett (her last screenplay).

    It’s very important to have dialogue (and body language, definitely) that is specific to each character. And characters who know each other well understand each other’s body language. My narrator is the detective’s assistant (he’s her Watson or Archie Goodwin) and he can convey to the reader what her body language means because he knows her so well.


    • OMG, I love His Girl Friday! I was just watching it the other day. ^_^ Also, I will have to pay more attention to this Ms. Brackett!

      And I pretty much agree with everything you said, heh. I love how in movies you can see how characters relate to each other using their bodies while talking. (And I think this is why I love playing Bioware’s RPGs because they provide that same multi-layered cinematic experience. More and more video games seem to be doing this now. I mean have you seen the technology they’re using to capture all this realism in L.A. Noire?!? It’s amazing.) So I think this has all influenced my storytelling.

      When I write about my characters, I like to visualize (and write) where they’re located, if they’re leaning on something, what they’re doing with their hands and facial expressions… Otherwise, you just don’t get the whole picture of the conversation (any undercurrents or whatnot).


  5. “When I write about my characters, I like to visualize (and write) where they’re located, if they’re leaning on something, what they’re doing with their hands and facial expressions… Otherwise, you just don’t get the whole picture of the conversation (any undercurrents or whatnot).”

    Yes, exactly. I just wrote a scene about a man and a woman walking through around a city together. They’re good friends, and there has always been an attraction between them, but he’s married and she’s in a relationship. All four are aware of the attraction, but the man and woman are not going to act on it.

    So, they walk and they talk and they have a good time, but at one point she considers circling her arm through his (and he can tell she’s considering it), but she doesn’t, because that would be stepping over the line. They never touch each other unless they have to.

    In the scene, I don’t even give any of the dialogue, I just describe the body language.


Comments are closed.