Hey, welcome back, my short story-obsessed friends. It’s heartwarming to recognize so many avatar faces from our last virtual session. I trust everyone has remembered to transfer my $100 honorarium, right? Great. Super. My PayPal account/Zihuatenajo Retirement Fund thanks you from the bottom of my piggy bank.
I’m here today to reveal a few more foolproof tips regarding the creation of . . . long-lived short stories. And I’m not talking just any short stories here. No sir. I’m talking about short literature worthy of O. Henry, Baby Ruth, and the King of Short Works himself, Tom Thumb (endorsement fee pending).
Now, last time we covered:
Rule #1: The Weather Report—Just skip it! You’re not writing a Russian novel, for Pasternak’s sake.
Rule #2: Characters—Kill off everybody you wouldn’t include on your Christmas list. Hey, most of them are just in it for the royalties, anyhow. Too many characters only gum up the works—kids especially. You should see the underside of my writing table.
Rule #3: Setting—Save words by setting your story somewhere everyone can recognize—like the dressing room at the corner strip club, or a bus station men’s room. C’mon, we’ve all been to one place or the other.
Okay, class! I just received great news. My Paypal account has been paid in full and it’s bulging like a distended hernia. Give yourselves a big round of applause. Now we’re ready to tackle the most important lesson of them all. In fact, this entire lesson is dedicated to good ol’ Rule Number 4.
Writing Short Stories Rule # 4: Dialogue
Whoa there, Jethro, dialogue isn’t a technique to rush into without proper preparation. I’m talking about strict adherence to the previously explained rules #2 and #3. So, I trust you’ve brought only a couple of your best characters to this soiree, and you’ve already plopped them into a scene as universally familiar as the farmer’s daughter’s bedroom, right? Good, you’ll go far, Jethro.
Now, all you have to do is nudge your characters into an interesting conversation. It should be that simple. But for those of you to whominteresting is a new concept, I’ll provide a few examples:
Interesting: Hey, did you hear Jack Stank took a baseball bat to the mush last night?
Not interesting: Harrumph, I haven’t heard from Jack in a coon’s age.
Interesting: Since when has Janis had that Elvis tattoo on her ass?
Not interesting: So, how’s your wife . . . Janis, right?
Interesting: “The Feds are onto us. We can’t go near the Fort Knox loot until the heat dies down.”
Not interesting: “Is it hot in here, or is it me?”
You getting the picture? Short story dialogue is never small talk! Listen, Lois, dialogue is a tremendous tool for propelling your story, and filling in blanks for your readers—without resorting to crass exposition.
The trick is to let your character be real characters. And let them tell the story. Maybe something like this:
“I had to mush Jack with a ball bat last night. Broke his jaw.”
“Catch him peeping on Janis again?”
“It’s like he never saw an ass with a tattoo before. OCD.”
“You know this could put us in a bind, he gets mad enough to talk to Treasury.”
“He can’t sing to the Feds with a broken jaw.”
“Maybe. But he can write.”
“Ah, good point. We better stay far away from the loot until we know which direction the fan’s blowing.”
See how it works? I let my characters riff on a few random lines about a baseball bat, a tattoo, and Fort Knox—damned if a story didn’t emerge.
Imagine those seventy-eight words of dialogue I just wrote as the opening of a story. We’d be off to the races, wouldn’t we? Already, we’ve introduced (or mentioned) four quirky characters, two conflicts, and the promise of much bigger problems ahead. All in seventy-eight words of dialogue.
Ah, but there’s more! We’ve also created some golden questions in the readers’ minds—Who are these speakers? What is the nature of this ‘loot’? And, the big one, What’s going to happen next?
So, what if we add a few embellishments? Our story continues:
The waitress quick-steps to the booth with our breakfasts.
“Okay, whicha you gets the sunny-sides, whole wheat?”
I sit up and gesture with my hand.
“Scrambled is mine,” says Ray. The waitress shoots him a Duh, no kidding?
When she’s gone, Ray leans across the table.
“Didn’t I tell you we never should’ve brought that guy in on our deal? Fifteen years we’ve done two-man jobs. And never even a sniff from the Feds. This goes sour, Wayne, it’s all on you, man.”
Eighty-three more words—mostly dialogue—and we’ve established setting, time of day, the names of the principal characters, and relevant information about their relationship. And we haven’t had to rely on narrative, or resort to tedious blocks of backstory.
That’s the power of dialogue, my friends.
Remember my admonition to keep your characters to a minimum? That goes double when you’re writing dialogue. Ideally, you want a conversation between two people. This way, they can volley back and forth, and you don’t have slow things down with speech tags all the time. Most readers have played ping-pong, so they know how it works.
And speaking of speech tags, keep them simple! Real people don’t chortle, nor do they exalt, nor do they opine with a quizzical air. The truth is, readers skim over dialogue tags unless they’re necessary to identify who is speaking. So, do your best to keep your conversations going back and forth. Even in a crowded room, Satchmo, two people can have a one-on-one conversation.
Even though I’ve only charged you $100, I’m going to offer you a Bonus Dialogue Tip that is not available in any store: People read with their ears!
It’s true! Give your characters different voices, and your readers won’t need as many speech tags. What if one character has a strong Brooklyn accent, the next character stutters like Porky Pig, and the third character speaks like he swallowed a Thesaurus? Who needs speech tags, huh?
No, Clyde, I’m not suggesting you turn your characters into cartoons. I’m simply trying to point out another weapon in the dialogue writer’s arsenal.
Yipes! Will you look at your watches? Your $100 is just about to tick its last tock. But stay tuned to the P & S channel for another rousing Calling All Fruit Flies session when we’ll explore Rule #5, How to End a Short Story: Suicide is never the answe . . . (Please deposit another thirty-five cents . . . )
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging. more...
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