Dialogue: The Key to Writing Crime Fiction For Millennials (Written by One)

If your name is Michael Connelly, Lee Child, or Harlan Coben, you don’t have to worry about audiences finding your books. Those guys—and the select few authors in the same category of general popularity and writing excellence—have established a brand, hooked an audience, and set themselves up for continued readership. They do write for their audience and actually incorporate a lot of what’s discussed here, but they could probably put just about anything on the page and people would still buy it.

Good for them. Seriously.

But what about the rest of us? How does an unknown author who isn’t famous and doesn’t have a best friend’s brother’s girlfriend who happens to be in tight with a movie executive or the head of marketing at a publicity firm or publisher find his or her own audience? It’s not so easy—but then again, it wasn’t necessarily easy for the people above either. So rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s ask: What did they do when they were getting started? The glib answer is the approach we should take hasn’t changed: they understood their audience and gave them what they wanted.

Jeffery Deaver, one of the great crime writers out there today, said it best, “My job is to entertain my own revered audience and not introduce storylines they won’t enjoy.”

Easy to say, hard to do.

What does a typical crime fiction reader look like? What’s the demographic? There’s a wide range of readers out there, but certainly, a substantial and growing subset is the (at times) elusive, hard-to-understand Millennial.

Since I am a Millennial … here goes nothing.

We’ve all read about them. They were born between 1981 and 1996. They’re tech-savvy and witty and sharp. They marry later, settle down and have families later, move around more, and like to travel. There’s a stigma that they’re lazy and feel entitled, to which many of us just shake our heads and choose to refute by example. But one thing that might surprise you—they read quite a bit more than generations did before them.[1]

Some of you might even assume the opposite. And who could blame you? The evidence seems to be all around us. Social media shortens communication, either specifically limiting the number of characters or encouraging several brief, often futile updates between users. No, I don’t care where you stopped for coffee. Picture sharing and confusing acronyms dominate social media and texting communication; even e-mail is becoming a dinosaur. Millennials spend 45 percent of their income on rent[2] and seek experiences over products more than any generation before it.

Given all of this, why would anyone assume they read more books? But more importantly, how do we, as authors, reach them, given these seemingly contrasting facts?

By writing for them, not to them. And, as Mr. Deaver so eloquently put it, giving them what they want. Retailers are doing the same thing, by the way, trying to get a piece of Millennials’ growing spend. High-tech companies are fighting like crazy to win employees over, offering everything from free dry cleaning to discounted childcare in Silicon Valley, and that’s nowhere near as extreme as this. The point is, as writers, we need to respect this audience for what it is, not presume it’s entitled or that it doesn’t read.

So how do we write for a Millennial?

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: our stories and our interactions with Millennials need to be electronic and mobile. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy the feel of a good book in their hands, but the reality is that more than half of website viewing is done via phone,[3] and that trend will only increase.

But what does this mean in terms of writing style? I believe it means you need to make your novel a number of things:

  • Quick
  • Real
  • Portaled (yes, I know that is not a word)

To spare you the suspense, something we all try not to do these days, I’ll just spit it out: Dialogue should become your new best friend. In my book, The Hubley Case, I know I tried to treat it like my best bud. Here are some aspects of dialogue and ways a crime writer can use them to speak to Millennials:

The PACE of Dialogue

Dialogue is fast. It’s snappy. It’s versatile: punchy and aggressive one minute, subtle and leading the next. But in all cases, it gets a message across with six words and a cuss instead of a paragraph of prose to do the same. Millennials are used to short bursts of information—I’m here, I’m there—and dialogue is a way to feed that. Don’t describe the way a room looks every time, let your characters discuss it with each other to illustrate the imagery. Utilize back-and-forth conversation to get lots of ideas crammed into a short space, and let the lines flow like a river as you communicate what’s important.

The AUTHENTICITY of Dialogue

Conversations happen every day in real life. We talk to friends; we talk to acquaintances, and unfortunately, we talk to people we don’t care for but have to work with or live near. Everyone gets that. Everyone knows what it’s like to have those conversations because everyone has them.

When you write it, you have to imagine people, real people, are saying what you’re writing. Jim Morrison once said, “There aren’t any real dumb people in my voices. It’s always irritated me about Hollywood dialogue—there’s so much dialogue that would just bore a Ford mechanic. This is not how people talk.” He was onto something. Pretend the conversation is happening in the world, with a Millennial, perhaps, and make it so.

Respect but at times disregard proper grammar, avoid clichés, and focus on authenticity. In real life, people cut each other off. They don’t follow subject-verb agreement rules all the time. A word is a word if they use it, regardless of what Webster says. Next time you’re on Twitter or Facebook, take a peek at how Millennials talk.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying you should abandon the proper rules of grammar altogether, nor am I saying you should just give in to a world that seems less focused on the steak than it does the sizzle. But when you use dialogue, make it real. Make it genuine. Use it to further your story and keep your audience engaged at the same time. Two birds are better than one.

The DOORWAY of Dialogue

Millennials care about current events. All sorts of social movements are happening at any one time, and Millennials take to social media to thrust their support into them. This generation also cares more about environmentally friendly products[4] than any other. Perhaps you agree with their views; perhaps you don’t. It doesn’t matter. We’re writers, not preachers. It’s not our job to broadcast our views; it’s our job to entertain. So how can we entertain and touch on the subjects that Millennials care about without coming across as reverends? Use dialogue.

Let your characters showcase the headlines with which Millennials identify. Touch the previously labeled taboos; use contrast to show opposing points and go where crime fiction novelists haven’t gone before—all from behind the protective cloak of dialogue that offers you the best of both worlds. Let your characters be the villain and the hero, and consider dialogue your paint for a blank canvass.

The SUMMARY of Dialogue

There are plenty of benefits to florid, descriptive prose that gives vivid details and impeccable imagery that any poet or novelist would love to read. But in today’s fast-moving world—especially with Millennials—even the classics would struggle. Crime fiction novelists of the ‘70s and ‘80s did what we need to do: they gave their audience what it wanted. And for a lot of reasons, not just the ones highlighted above, dialogue is the answer to providing today’s generation with the same satisfaction.



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