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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COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER
I realized it the other day as I was digging out my Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Barking Dogs Christmas CDs. We’re about to experience a shortage even worse than American affordable health insurance policies. My friends, we are running out of new Holiday Schmaltz. You know—those classic sentimental stories, songs, poems and movies that keep audiences enthralled for an entire two months each year and a writer in candy canes from November clear through January.
Think about what new material has to compete with. St. Luke covered the dramatic angle in The Bible—high drama and suspense followed by awestruck shepherds and angelic choirs. Can’t improve on that one. No way. Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber’s Silent Night comes close, though.
Charles Dickens warned “you better watch out” when he introduced Scrooge to the Ghost of Christmas Past. That message was reiterated on a more mercenary level by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots in their song Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. And we know there’s a Santa Claus. It was proven to everyone’s satisfaction in George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street. Well, wasn’t it? Remember, he knows everything.
While we’re on the subject of movies, how can anything beat Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life for pure sentiment? Or how about Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story?
The poetry angle was sewn up by Clement Clarke Moore whose daddy, the Bishop of New York, officiated at George Washington’s inauguration. Reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas is a worldwide tradition, and well it should be with that kind of pedigree.
Virtually every recording artist who can carry a tune has recorded Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. And for those who can’t, there’s always Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (Cledus T. Judd).
See what I mean? The market’s been cornered on schmaltz. How does anyone compete with the hands-down best? Me? I’m going to pour me an eggnog and curl up with Alvin, The Barking Dogs and Mannheim Steamroller.
N.K. Wagner is the publisher/executive editor of Page & Spine.
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Integration---for most people, this simple word means trying to assimilate race and culture, but for writers, integration has a hidden meaning. We can not give birth to ideas without having experienced the lasting effects of choice.
Basically we all need to begin with truth. If we have never experiences grand passion, how can we possibly express foolish choices, blinded by desire? How can we understand a thief, if we have always lived beneath a moral compass?
Don’t even try. A writer who has not felt the emotion has very little chance of translating the feeling to readers. Draw on the emotion, the seedling that spurred the thought and fluttered its wings, stirring the memory.
A fiction writer does not need to be Scarlet O’Hara, but she must understand what it feels like to lose everything and depend on the talents of her fellow survivors to illustrate her ferocity in the face of poverty. Her gown, made of draperies, offered an assumptive front to a disguise of real feeling and her antagonist, Rhet Butler, said it all. “Frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”
I was proud of him, and I was decidedly sorry for Scarlet.
Let your life integrate with your experience and don’t be afraid to run naked. No one can actually see you.
Canadian author Ingrid Thomson is a published essayist and short story writer.
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I have just completed reading a story written in first-person. It was a charming tale about a young girl, being raised by a single parent who was struggling financially. The girl lived in oblivion of her mother’s financial burdens. She wasn’t aware they were poor, she had no toys and her days were spent spinning stories in her head and reciting tales about leprechauns and fairies to her mother.
Inevitably the rude awakening of the family problems shatters her innocence. She sets aside her childhood fantasies, gives up on storytelling and becomes a pragmatic adult. Until she meets an eighty-four year old woman who has never lost the wonder and re-awakens the passions of the main character’s childhood.
In my review I suggested that she ‘correct’ the genre in which she submitted from fiction to biographical. Her response blew me away. She told me this was a fictional story.
This writer was highly successful in convincing me that she was writing about herself. That’s the key to using the first-person point of view. You must become the character you are creating; think like her and act like her. It has to be a very personal story. The detachment of third-person writing needs to be abandoned and you must be willing to step inside your character.
In the theatrical world we’ve heard the term method acting, read stories about famous celebrities who need time to go into character before the cameras begin to roll. In order to do that effectively in print, the writer must go through the same process.
It is always a wise tactic to be able to use personal experience as a base. A person who has struggled financially will have difficulty writing about the very rich in first person, but entirely capable of becoming the bank robber, so desperate for money he becomes a thief. The writer understands that emotion, the desperation, and the forces that would lead a person to step over the line and become a criminal. She might find it difficult to understand a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive where no one ever looks at a price tag. This tale is best left in third person where the narrator can look at the character’s behaviour with detachment.
Choose your point of view carefully and you’ll envelop your reader in the world you are creating.
When Jade is not exercising her talents as associate story editor for Page & Spine she is a published short story writer and essayist.
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