August 25 – 31: “Are there specific requirements for dialogue in thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Summer’s coming to an end and this week we’re talking dialogue with ITW Members M.P. Cooley, Thomas Waite, Kelli Stanley, John Florio, Ken Kuhlken, Whitley Strieber and Michael Richards. Are there specific requirements for dialogue in thrillers?


Lethal Code by Thomas WaiteThomas Waite is the best-selling author of cyber-thrillers. His latest novel, LETHAL CODE, tells the shocking and frighteningly possible story of a massive, anonymous cyber-attack on the United States by an unknown enemy. Agatha award winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan said of LETHAL CODE: “Taut, tense, and provocative, this frighteningly knowing cyber-thriller will keep you turning pages—not only to devour the fast-paced fiction, but to worry about how much is terrifyingly true.”

Ice Shear by M.P. CooleyM.P. Cooley‘s debut crime novel ICE SHEAR (William Morrow) is one of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014 and was called “an excellent debut” by Publishers Weekly in their starred review. A native of upstate New York, she currently lives in Campbell, California. She studied literature at Barnard College, and went on to work in tax and law publishing, acquiring business, accounting, and economics books. Currently, she works in administration at a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley.

City of Ghosts by Kelli StanleyKelli Stanley writes the Miranda Corbie series of literary noir novels, set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring the iconoclastic private eye Miranda Corbie–called, by Library Journal, one of “crime’s most arresting heroines.” CITY OF DRAGONS won the Macavity Award and was nominated for a Shamus and Los Angeles Times Book Prize; CITY OF SECRETS won the Golden Nugget for best California-set mystery, and CITY OF GHOSTS just received a glowing review from the Wall Street Journal.


The Good Know Nothing by Ken KuhlkenKen Kuhlken‘s short stories, features, essays and columns have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. His novels have earned numerous awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin’s/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. His new Tom Hickey California Crime novel is The Good Know Nothing. Get the whole story at:

Blind Moon Alley by John FlorioJohn Florio is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in print, on the web, and on television. He is the author of SUGAR POP MOON and BLIND MOON ALLEY—the first two Jersey Leo crime novels—and ONE PUNCH FROM THE PROMISED LAND: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Ouisie Shapiro.


Alien Hunter--the Underworld by Whitley StrieberWhitley Strieber is the author of many thrillers, among them classics such as the Wolfen and the Hunger, and more recent books like the Grays, which is in development as a movie, and the Alien Hunter series, which is in development as a TV series. His movies are the Wolfen, the Hunger, Communion and the Day After Tomorrow, based on his book Superstorm. His latest thriller, Alien Hunter: Underworld is the second in the Alien Hunter series. It’s not a sequel, but a stand alone book continuing the character of Flynn Carroll, a police officer who works with an alien police force to apprehend alien criminals on earth.

For more than two decades, M. A. Richards served as a Cultural Attaché in the Department of State at embassies and consulates in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Lagos, Moscow, Seoul, and Tel Aviv, in addition to assignments in Washington. He also served at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu as the Special Advisor to the Commander, a four star Admiral.  He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Russian. An award winning photographer, avid surfer, and rider of Victory and Triumph motorcycles, he currently resides in Hawai’i with his wife Young, a ceramic artist. His debut novel, CHOICE OF ENEMIES – A Nathan Monsarrat Thriller – is currently under consideration.

  1. It must be evening somewhere in the world, so I’m going to kick this off because later I’ll be at Noir in the Bar, in La Jolla, CA, only blocks from Raymond Chandler’s home and hangouts.

    Dialog: I once had an agent who told me to cut the speeches to what could be uttered during the course of one normal breathe. And a film agent recently advised that few movies are being made that aren’t primarily action with dialog that is ultra-easy to translate into foreign languages, which also usually means brief exchanges. But all that advice is, I believe, based upon the desire to make a fortune with a blockbuster film and to get reviewers praising the break-next pace.

    On another hand, there are all kinds of thrillers, and maybe the only advice that would be useful in all of them is to make every line of dialog in some way move the story forward.

  2. The temptation in writing thrillers, in particular tales with technical details, is to engage in expository dialogue, which rarely rings true. Better to have asides in the dialogue in which the author offers a quick definition of a term or a device, for instance, rather than having a character define it in the course of speaking, which usually sounds laborious. Explanations in dialogue usually only work when they’re integral to the story–a teaching moment–and fully contextualized.

    In high pressure situations, it’s also worth keeping in mind that people in real life rarely get loquacious. The information passed among them becomes bare bones essential. It’s survival time.

    While I don’t think the occasional adverb to describe a speaker’s tone is necessarily bad, it should be used sparingly, or the dialogue begins to feel bogged down. The same could be said for exclamation marks!!!

    A lot can be accomplished using a character’s inner thoughts, but again brevity is often best. And, of course, expository inner dialogue is just as bad as the kind spoken aloud.

    1. You make a very good point when you say that there’s a temptation to engage in expository dialogue when offering quick definitions of technical details.
      The same goes for authors of espionage thrillers when the characters are referring to spy tradecraft. Best explain the terms through following narrative or action.

      1. Arthur, I agree the same goes for authors of espionage thrillers. The best novels I’ve read in that particular genre don’t have characters using expository dialogue to discuss their tradecraft. As Whitely Strieber notes below, “…the best thrillers have the best dialogue. This is because dialogue, even more than narrative, drives tension.”

  3. At the start of a novel, I find myself trying to force words out of a character’s mouth. I need to remind myself to get out of the way and let the people living the story tell it in their own way. Also, when writing foreign characters, it is necessary to possess the vocabulary for how those people really speak. A Russian “vor” in St. Petersburg speaks a distinct mafioso language, and a “shahid” from Ramallah speaks a street Arabic you won’t learn in your college class.

  4. One of the best learning experiences a thriller novelist can have is writing screenplays.

    Dialog is everything in a screenplay. You have very little time to write exposition; shots and angles obviously allow you to play director, at least on the page. The dialog carries the main burden of character and action … and, at one page=one minute of film time, there is no time for fluff.

    I wrote several screenplays before attempting my first novel, and I highly recommend the exercise.

  5. I spend a great deal of time on dialogue. It needs to both deepen character and advance story while at the same time reading in a naturalistic manner. There is a truism: the best thrillers have the best dialogue. This is because dialogue, even more than narrative, drives tension. The reader needs to be able to feel the intensity of the characters, and that comes from the way they talk and the way their conversation works. Too much description, no matter how well done, makes a thriller go dead in the water.

    Example: “The torpedo had crashed into the hold. In another three seconds, it was going to explode.”

    Done with dialogue: Joe saw the telltale line of foam, felt the ship lurch. He braced. “Oh, shit.”

    To me, the second one is way better.

  6. To me, dialogue in a thriller needs to be crisp and clean. This, of course, is true for every line in a well-paced thriller. Each needs to move the story forward. Personally, I also shoot to have every line of dialogue say something about the character speaking, or about the dynamics of the relationship between the two parties speaking.

    Also, some of the best dialogue comes about when a character lies. First of all, this reflects real life—nobody tells the truth all the time. But more important, in fiction, when a character lies, so many truths (and conflicts) come to the surface. For example, in BLIND MOON ALLEY, Jersey is an albino bartender in a speakeasy during Prohibition—a job that is clearly against the law. When Jersey’s father, a straight arrow, asks Jersey where he works, Jersey lies—and when caught in the lie, he says he’ll quit soon (another fib). In my view, this makes their father-son relationship richer on the page.

  7. In Ice Shear, I tried to treat my dialogue as action. Conflict is key. Even when characters are on the same side, I like to see them challenging each other’s assumptions, mixing it up a little. I think short sharp sentences are key in thriller dialogue, particularly during a crisis, and I try to use as few dialogue tags, leading to faster exchanges and more tension.

    With the exception of June, who is the voice of Ice Shear, I do a pass at the end, following each character through their scenes to try to create the same cadence for the characters, keeping their dialogue consistent. There are a couple of exception to this rule: FBI Agent Hale Bascom’s speech is generally short and sharp, but when he’s tired, drunk, or talking to his mama, out comes the southern accent.

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