Friday, July 10, 2009

Say What?

This last week, I submitted a piece of flash fiction to the Reading Writers' Dynamic Dialogue Contest. The challenge was to write a complete story, using only dialogue. Taglines were not allowed. Since I’m the type of writer who uses a ton of back story in order to provide the reader with subtext, whether through flashbacks or simple narrative, the contest posed an interesting question: How do you accomplish giving the back story without it sounding like a dialogue information dump. And then there was the issue of writing action without using narrative or action tags? Suffice it to say, trying to accomplish the same tasks while using only dialogue presented a unique challenge.

One of the reasons why I like to read Stephen King while crafting a story is because I find in his writing the inspiration to stretch my own. Reading The Stand has been no exception. Let me give you a small excerpt. Here’s the set-up. Frannie Goldsmith finds out she’s “preggers” and makes the decision to have the baby and dump the boyfriend. Later, she’s standing before her father, choosing to tell him first.

She looked at him dumbly for a moment, not sure how she should proceed. She had come out here to tell him, and now she wasn’t sure if she could. The silence hung between them, growing larger, and at last it was a gulf she couldn’t stand. She jumped.

“I’m pregnant,” she said simply.

He stopped filling his pipe and just looked at her. “Pregnant,” he said, as if he had never heard the word before. Then he said: “Oh, Frannie… is it a joke? Or a game?”

Putting the glaring adverb aside for the moment (until my next posting), I want to focus on King’s use of the ellipsis. So, how do you create action without using narrative or action tags? Throw in a pause and let the readers piece it together. Maybe it’s just me, but with that simple use of punctuation, I can see Frannie’s father looking at her, his eyes trying to read the lines on her face. With that pause, and the two questions that follow, I can also see Peter Goldsmith looking at his daughter with just a hint of a smile. Was it all a joke?

While overusing an ellipsis can draw too much attention away from the story, I believe that the right placement can offer the reader volumes of information.

Regarding subtext, allow me to provide an authoritative voice. This comes from The Lie That Tells A Truth, a wonderful book on writing by John Dufresne.

…we might add that dialogue is useful for getting across what is not said as well as what is said. (Like a plot, what is on the surface of dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Seven-eighths of dialogue, to continue the iceberg analogy, is subtext, is below the surface.) Fictional conversation is not about information. It is often an attempt at deliberate evasion, at confusion, rather than communication. Often the purpose of an exchange is to conceal as well as reveal, to impress, to seduce, to harm, to protect or to reject. Every person in a conversation has an agenda, and you need to know what each agenda is.

As an example, let me use an excerpt from the story I presented to the competition. I would like you to imagine a conversation between two women. One is beating around the bush, while the other is more direct and extremely sarcastic with her comments. Then, the first one says something like this:

“But that’s why I called. I wanted to say… I want to say how sorry I am. About me and Tom.”

That one line (I hope) provides the reader with some interesting insight. Again we find the ellipsis, only in the context of what is said the readers see an angst-riddled face instead of Peter Goldsmith’s quizzical one. Furthermore, the last part of that line provides subtext for the current situation. There was an affair. The first woman is trying to make restitution. And now the reader understands why the second woman has been so snarky. She’s still hurting. And as Dufresne pointed out, she has her own agenda: to hurt back.

For me, trying to figure out each character’s agenda, is one of the more enjoyable aspect of reading. That’s why I like reading fiction where the author doesn’t spell everything out; instead, he leaves it up to the reader to calculate the sum. Dialogue is just one way where the author lets the reader do just that.

As an exercise, if you haven’t already done so for the Dynamic Dialogue Contest, try writing a piece of flash fiction using only dialogue. John Dufresne admits that he often starts out with only dialogue, after which he goes back and fills in the other details. See if you can use techniques like ellipses, dashes and language to project more information than what is spoken in the written words. In the process, I trust that you’ll find, just like I have, that dialogue can open up more in a story than you ever dreamed possible.

For good reading, you might also pick up your own copy of The Lie That Tells A Truth. It is a worthy addition to your library.


  1. Great points! I struggled with creating an 'all dialogue' story. It was an excellent exercise and has since influenced all of my writing.

  2. "I think I tend to go a little heavy on the dialog in general. But to do a whole piece in dialog - that would be difficult."

    "No, it wouldn't."

    "Yes it would. You're always so contrary."

    "Me, contrary? You're the one who's always arguing."

    "Well, it's my head, isn't it? Ack! Shhh. Stephen's listening!"

    (Sorry, got away from myself there. Good post.)

  3. After slaving over an entry for this contest, I wondered how a story might turn out where you focused on the dialogue first and then filled in the narrative later.

    When my effort falls short, I may take it and try to do that and see how it looks.

    Good article, as always.


  4. Stephen --

    Wow - this contest is tough not just in the limited guidelines but in the stiff competition. A lot of EU forum members tossing in an entry.
    I have one in too.
    You hit it right in saying that it is difficult trying to weave action and backstory into dialogue without it sounding like an info dump. Whew!

    I learned a lot about writing sharp dialogue by reading Elmore Leonard. His philosophy is to work as much of the story into dialogue as possible and keep the narrative to a minimum. His theory being-- cut out all the parts that readers skim and make it part of dialogue - which readers never skip.

    I look forward to seeing your name in the winner's circle.


  5. Super post. And super story ;^)

    I reckon writing a story for the dialogue contest is sort of like writing a screenplay. I'm happy for you and all the others who took on the challenge (I didn't have time to enter this contest... burnt on other commitments...), but I spent some time wondering what I might write, and drew a blank. Good-luck! Peace, Linda

  6. My thanks to everyone for stopping by again. Like Laura, I found this exercise beneficial in that it forced me to look carefully at how to write dialogue. (And why)

    No need to apologize, Jon. Getting carried away is something we all do. It's in our writing blood.

    You shouldn't sell yourself short, John (Towler). As demonstrated by your success and publishing creds, your writing is excellent stuff. I think it is, too.

    Wow, Kim. I didn't know that little fact about Elmore Leonard. Did that come from his 10 Rules of Writing? I haven't read that one yet. Maybe I should.

    I agree with you, Linda. An all-dialogue piece does look like a script. It's a good thing, IMO. By writing the dialogue to sound natural while conveying a ton of information, the process can only make me a better writer.

  7. I struggle with dialogue when I dare to use it, so I am in awe of anyone who attempted this exercise. It looks like you've got it all figured out ;-)

    I am a sucker for ellispsis, and I know I overuse them.

    Great post!

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Tomara. And thanks for gently pointing out my spelling error. That has been fixed.

    While I would like to believe my dialogue has improved over the years, I don't think I've got it all worked out. ;)

    I have had too many readers tell me this line or that line doesn't work with that character. And more often that not, my first reader will tell me to cut some dialogue in order to make it more crisp.

    It seems there is always room for improvement, and this business of writing is a never ending journey.

  9. Good post, Stephen. The dialogue contest was a tough one. I've been really impressed by the entries I've seen so far. Hope you fare well.


  10. Ha! Stephen -- Yes my answer stemmed from Leonard's Rule 10 [--which I took some liberty explaining.]

    Here it is:
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.