Dead Men Talk: Some Tips About Writing Dialogue

Forensics expert Dianna Taylor extract fingerprints

As my friend and forensic expert Dianna Taylor, owner of Ignis Forensics in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says “Dead men not only talk, but some of them are real chatterboxes!” She means dead women too, and having led successful forensics investigations in Florida, Mississippi, and Colorado, she knows what she’s talking about. In Dianna’s case, she means she knows how to examine the evidence to get to the truth behind murder, rape, arson, and dozens of other violent crimes. In this photo, she’s extracting fingerprints from the hand of a victim who had been immersed in water for some time before the body was discovered (blaah). We’ll talk more about Dianna and her role in the case my colleague and I are writing about in another post. Stay tuned.

I’m writing a nonfiction book about a triple homicide, though, and in my situation, I need to use dialogue so my readers can “hear” the voices of the victims, witnesses, and perpetrator. Good stories contain a lot of dialogue; characters tell their own story and the author’s hand is as invisible as humanly possible. “My” murders happened in 1999 and at the time, I lived far away and didn’t know the people involved. So I needed to dig a lot to get a feeling for how they talked and what they might have said.

Talking to friends, coworkers, and family members is one way I’ve learned about the phrases they commonly used, the timbre of their voice, whether their delivery style was formal or casual. I’ve been privy to favorite jokes and stories they loved to tell. Other sources include documentary samples like family videotapes or audio recordings, letters, school writing projects, and diaries. These are great because the speakers are often not self-conscious and you can get a feel not only for what they say, but what kind of person they are or were. If the author is respectful of the people she is writing about and those who are providing the information, it is surprising how much information people are eager to share. They want to get the story told when victims can no longer speak for themselves.

Newspaper accounts, television reports, 911 transcripts, and trial and police interview transcripts all offer both content and style, and they are specifically about the subject I’m covering in the book. You get the idea; there are many sources of material available. The author’s job is sorting through it to pick the details that best tell the story he is trying to tell well and truthfully.

Finally, the regular rules of good dialogue-writing apply. Avoid saying “…she shouted,” or “she snarled.” In general, use “she said.” Let the scene setting and the dialogue itself do the heavy lifting. Avoid using exclamation points!!! 😉

About Susan Keefe

I am Susan Keefe, a freelance writer whose particular topics of interest include true crime and the experience of deafness. I am currently co-writing a book about the triple homicide of a wife and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters with Charlie Wells, the now-retired 23-year veteran sheriff of Manatee County, Florida. I have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. My husband Bob Volpe and I divide our time between a lake cottage in Battersea, Ontario, Canada and our condominium in Sarasota, Florida.