Archive for November, 2013

Last night in our November Columbia Writers’ Alliance meeting, I presented a workshop on dialogue.

I used clips from a favorite novel, Water for Elephants, which had short pieces of dialogue of each type. Here, I’ve used my own work because I wanted to see if I’d been successfully applying what I know about the fundamentals of dialogue in a story.

Here’s what dialogue does in a story:

Set the scene

Tell the reader where and when they are. What is the weather like? Is it daylight or darkness? Is the sun shining or is it overcast? Are we amid flowers and manicured pathways or desolation and ruin?

From Sunday School:

“So what should we talk about?” Preacher asked.

“Heard they won’t get power back to Calvert County till Tuesday,” Popeye Logan said.

“Heard that, too,” Ed Duncan confirmed.

“Your son out workin’ today?” Mr. Mahoney asked Preacher.

“Sure is,” Preacher said, “came home for dinner around 2 a.m. and then back out again. Been on for 48 hours.”

“Heard the resort got power back yesterday morning,” Mr. Cleary said.

“Got money,” Popeye Logan said, “Gonna have that.”

“Ain’t the money,” Mr. Mahoney said.

“Sure ‘tis,” Popeye said.

“It’s a business. No power, people go home. They go home, you issue refunds. Gotta keep the power on. Plus, they got their own grounds guys up there.” Mr. Mahoney blotted his upper lip with a handkerchief.

“Gotta have money to have all that,” Popeye said.

Advance action

This kind of dialogue changes the story. You can find it by locating the beginning of the dialogue passage and jotting down each character’s condition: sad, anxious, worried, angry; then read the dialogue and jot down the characters’ positions. If they’re the same, the dialogue has not advanced the action.

From The Second Sister:

We’d been far enough from water for long enough that our own skin had itched with filth. But we hadn’t seen nothin as far gone as Byron Meade.

“What is this, Dad?” Erika said.

“Hello,” Emelyne said, reaching her hand out.

“Don’t touch it,” Erika snapped, smacking Emelyne’s hand away.

“This man saved me,” Dad said.

“Saved you from what?” I asked.

“And I’ve brought him here to repay him.” Dad clapped his hands together and looked at each of us who were starin at that bear.

We stood there, the father and the daughters and the bear in the empty swimming pool with our shelter behind us and the fire tossing shadows around us. The Old Texas sky arched above us full of stars.

“Repay him how?” Erika asked.

“You’ll marry him,” Dad said.

“You must be joking,” I said.

Give insight into characterization

Characters can speak with a dialect, can use splendiferous vocabularies, can stutter, or can drift off the main point of the conversation. They can use one-syllable expressions, purposefully shortening names and employing slang like, “k” and “huh?” All of these are ways to show character. How a character speaks is an indicator of his education, his interest in what’s happening, and his origins.

From Gordon Finch’s Miracle:

“Whaddaya doin?” she said.

Gordon looked at his raisin toast then back at her, lumpy and bulging across from him. “I don’t understand the question,” Gordon said.

“I mean every night? Right at twelve.”

“Twelve thirty.”

“Other people are sleepin’. Whaddaya doin’?” she asked again.

“I work,” he said, then, “at the tire plant, I work at the plant. I get off at twelve. I come here to eat.”

“Every night?” she said.

“No,” he said. The toast was cooling in his hands. The cheese on his eggs gone gelatinous now. He said, “Only when I work.”

Who Does it Best?

I’m a Hemingway fan and he’s prone to dialogue exchanges that are so lengthy one can lose track of who says what. I also have a spot of playwriting in me and because of that I like for the words the character uses to stand alone, without tag or narration, and I believe that if those words are good enough, one doesn’t need the excess.

Just to indulge myself, from The Sun Also Rises (p.128):

“Say,” Bill said, “what about this Brett business?”

“What about it?”

“Were you ever in love with her?”


“For how long?”

“Off and on for a long time.”

“Oh, hell!” Bill said. “I’m sorry, fella.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “I don’t give a damn anymore.”


“Really. Only I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

We know there are some firm rules about how to incorporate dialogue. The most important rule is:

Speak only those things which no one else knows or could possibly know without it being said.

If the dialogue is merely repeating what the reader or the characters already know, then it isn’t being productive. Remember that most people don’t speak what they’re really thinking, so you must somehow convey their thoughts through the words they choose.

Until the next workshop installment, why not share your thoughts on dialogue? Who does it really well? What makes a dialogue passage stink?

Additional resources: Write to Done, Writer’s Digest, Roz Morris via a G+ from Melanie Marttila of Wordsmith Studio 


So I’ve done it!

Thanks to Khara House for the kick-in-the-pants. I’ve now sent 13 stories out into the literary universe. One has already been accepted, thanks Spry! For taking “Two Trunks.” One has already been rejected, thanks, Lascaux, for giving “Have You Seen” a look. We’ll try to find a home for it elsewhere.

So here’s the final week’s roundup:

Good Friday

Everyone knows the bureaucracy of registering your vehicle can be tedious, but has it ever made you feel like you’ve lost the last shreds of your sanity? This is a rare first-person short story because I simply didn’t know how else to tell it. Favorite line:

The camel-toed crotch followed me back into the parking lot, recorded the license plate details, noted the inspection sticker, pulled the seatbelt across her lap, and administered a driving test. She seemed unhappy when I passed. I felt crazy enough to drive into oncoming traffic with her in the passenger seat.

Submitted to The Bellows American Review because what’s more American than hating your fellow Americans in all their misshapen body, attitude-bearing, brutal honesty?

God Called

Like Gordon Finch, this story has been around for a while. But it was the addition of the first call and the tying of the two together that really made the story work. It’s about a woman who receives two phone calls to two separate residences, six years apart, both of which become pivotal moments for her. Favorite moment:

Very few people have cell phones. The phones are still rather clunky, the size of a can of vegetables and almost as heavy. Mare’s has a translucent orange cover that lights up when it rings but it rarely does. When someone calls it, the phone sings an electronic song that Mare sometimes doesn’t recognize as her ring tone.

To me, the cell phone description juxtaposes nicely with the home phone, that impersonal umbilical to the universe outside of one’s home. I like that the cell phone’s individuality and independence are not fully realized yet and so there’s a sort of in-between time when the home phone is frustratingly abused by unknown callers but the cell phone isn’t entirely adopted.

Anyway, this one went to Shadow Road who suggests submissions ought to be about characters who are struggling with things we can identify with. Without giving away the story, Mare’s struggles are adolescent-to-adult and family-shelter-to-independent-person. Who hasn’t been through that?

Sunday School

I’ve worked on Sunday School since last summer when I saw a group of elderly folks holding class under a tree outside their church. It was the Sunday morning after a tremendous wind storm had knocked out the power in middle Virginia and I thought, isn’t it too hot for them out there? What do different circumstances do to their weekly polite conversation? Favorite line:

What did Anne Marie know of Daniel? Of a lion’s den? Of anything, really, except how doggone hot it was. Ninety eight degrees in the shade. We ought to be prayin don’t none of us have a stroke. Mr. Mahoney and his “we don’t have a choice.” Shoot, they did so. They could have gone home and suffered this heat alone. With dignity. In their underwear.

This one went to Arcadia partly because it’s really long (4,910 words) and they have no limit. But also, because the conversation is subtle and the moments are intentionally understated. The story I read that they’d published, King of the Apes, had the kind of subtlety I hope “Sunday School” has.

So that’s it.

Submit-O-Rama is over and I’ll just get to sit back and wait on the acceptances (!) or rejections (boo!) as they come. My fiction is out into the literary universe and the goal of Submit-O-Rama was to push beyond my comfort zone and challenge myself.

When at the end of last week I had three stories left to send and all three needed significant work, I could have quit. But I didn’t.

And even if they are rejected, at least they went.

I feel pleased with the process above all and with the work, too, for the most part.

How did your Submit-O-Rama wrap up?