We’re down to the last few days before the official launch of Tesla’s Ghost on Feb. 28, and I am once reminded of how stories like this really come down to long stretches of dialogue, regardless of whether it’s intended or not. Shelly and I have been watching The Man in the Iron Castle on Amazon Prime, and I realized the same thing. Adventure, comedy, suspense, mystery: it doesn’t matter. The bottom like is that you had better have some pretty convincing–and entertaining–dialogue to keep your readers interested, or they will leave you.
I believe in Tesla’s Ghost, and I am eager to share it with you. So to give you an example of what I’m talking about, here are four examples of dialogue in the book from four very different situations. I’ll give you some context so you’re not completely lost, but hopefully you’ll be able to follow along.
First, I have a clip from the first chapter, where Nikola Tesla is talking with his new assistant, Fritz Lowenstein, and explaining that strange things, ghosts perhaps, are appearing in the laboratory. They are caught between a desire to investigate and a fear that the news of their discovery will chase away investors:
“I cannot be associated with any hunt for ghosts or any such nonsense. It would ruin us all,” Tesla said, staring into Fritz’s eyes. “At the same time, I am serious when I said that our research will take us to the outer edge of man’s knowledge.” He jabbed his finger at the image that lay against Fritz’s chest, as if cursing it. “There is something there, and I will know what it is. And I believe that you want to know as well.”
The dialogue here does two things: it demonstrates the intensity that Tesla carries around him and expects from his workers, and it sets up the story as something that goes beyond the historical depiction we have of Tesla.
Tesla convinces Fritz to keep a secret notebook to record these strange occurrences, which ends up as the property of Fritz’s great-great-grandson, more than a century later. The next clip has Eli, the grandson, meeting with his team of friends in a basement, where they are working on their Project, a computer game called Blood is the Harvest. Eli sneaks up behind his female friend Sam, who is coding on a computer:
“Sorry, Sam,” he said, grinning at her. “Just thought you might be hungry.”
“Starving,” she said, jumping up from her chair. “Did you bring pineapple pizza this time?” She reached for the nearest box and looked. When that didn’t have what she was looking for, she reached for the other one. Sorrowfully, she dropped the cover and her shoulders sagged.
“Sorry,” Eli said. “These were free. Pizzas that weren’t picked up. You know the state of our finances right now. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Well, this beggar’s about to go do her coding somewhere else. Somewhere where she can get pineapple pizza.” The hurt was obvious in her voice, but after a pause, she began digging through the cardboard boxes and pulled out a slice to eat.
“I keep telling you, Sam,” Rubik said. “Pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza. It’s been scientifically proven.”
“Science or no, it tastes good,” she said through a mouthful of pizza. “Food for the gods. Or goddess.”
“Yeah, right,” Rubik said. “Keep telling yourself that.”
While the section on Tesla is bound by historical accuracy, the characters in modern day are totally fictitious, so I had a lot more latitude to work with them. I am a firm believer that any suspense or adventure story MUST include some element of humor in it, both to lighten up the heaviness of the suspense and just because it’s fun. Adding these friends of Eli’s not only added fun to the story, but you will see they play a major part later on.
One of the other, very important characters in the story is Dr. Alois Truman, Eli’s physics professor, who is also a lovestruck single man. He sees a environmental activist online and learns that she will be at a seminar in San Francisco, so he goes there to meet her. Both Truman and the meeting play an important part in the development of the story. Here’s how Truman and the young woman finally meet after her seminar presentation:
“Hello,” she said finally.
“Hello,” he replied, not getting up.
She took the leather satchel she had brought with her and slung it over her shoulder, walking down the aisle toward Truman. She stopped when she was about eight feet away still standing in the aisle.
“Bukiyōna baka is Japanese for clumsy fool,” she said to him. “I’m sorry, it came out before I had a chance to think. I say the same thing to my cat when he knocks things over at my apartment.” She shrugged awkwardly. “Those two are friends of mine.”
Truman looked at her. “Is that an apology?”
“You can take it for one if you want. You did kind of trample them.”
There was an awkward pause, and Marya nodded finally.
“Well, have a nice night.”
“Alois Truman,” he said, shooting to his feet awkwardly. “Dr. Alois Truman. I teach physics in San Diego.”
“Nice to meet you, Professor Truman,” Marya said. “Have a good evening.” She took another step toward the exit.
Say something.“I didn’t get your name.”
She frowned strangely. “Yes, you did. They introduced me at the panel. I’m Marya Portbury.”
He shrugged. “Well, that didn’t really count, at least in social circles. But now you have introduced yourself, so we are no longer strangers. Marya, would you like to get a cup of coffee with me?”
She shook her head. “That’s very kind, but no thanks. I’m married.”
“Married…?” he echoed. Truman hadn’t even conceived of the possibility, and now it was like a heavy iron door coming down on top of his feet. He watched as she stepped out the exit and barely heard the final words she said.
“Yes, I’m married to my work.”
Clips like this don’t really do justice to the entire story, and it’s hard to give proper context to them. But when you’re writing them, it’s critical that dialog not only be entertaining, but move the story along as well as be consistent with the nature of the character.
My final example of dialogue is taken from a scene where Fritz and Tesla are with an engineer named Czito at their famous Colorado Springs location, trying out their high voltage transfer experiments. It is the middle of the night, but the air is charged with electricity:
And as Fritz watched Tesla, he saw something else. Despite the four-inch cork soles on his shoes, sparks flew from Tesla’s feet to the ground every time he took a step.
“This is madness,” Fritz muttered to himself.
“No,” he heard Czito say in the corner. “This is science.”
Dialog is an important part of any written piece. It’s a challenge to do effectively, and easy to mess up. It takes years to master, and even those of us who have been writing for decades can struggle sometimes with it. But if you do it right, it can make the difference between a good piece of work, and a great one.
Check out Tesla’s Ghost on Amazon.