Goldilocks and the Three Kinds of Dialogue

Dialogue in fiction is not simply people chatting away about their day. It’s supposed to do a lot of hard work: characterize the speaker, advance the plot, convey subtext. In a writing workshop that I’m taking this fall, the instructor, author Adam Stumacher, gave us some great advice about dialogue that I wanted to share here. It comes from Junot Diaz, Stumacher told us, and it has three parts. After you’ve written a section of dialogue, take a look at what you’ve written and Continue reading

When Less Is More

Like many people who write, I love language, and I especially admire writers that are able to compress details and time into just a few words.

Look at this example from Jim Henry’s story, “The Flood.”

“When I got home from the gym there was a message for the other Jonathan Patrick from a guy named Willie who said he’d had a prophetic dream and absolutely had to talk to me.”
One sentence. Lots of stuff going on. Notice the use of the word “other.” The other Jonathan Patrick. Immediately you know the narrator’s name. You know there’s someone else named that, you wonder who it is. You wonder who Willie is. You also wonder what the prophetic dream was. This opening sentence is working on so many different levels, compressing time and info information a compact, intriguing sentence.

And this from James Salter’s “Foreign Shores.”

Mrs. Pence and her white shoes were gone. She had left two days before, and the room at the top of the stairs was empty, cosmetics no longer littering the dresser, the ironing board finally taken down. Only a few scattered hairpins and a dusting of talcum remained. The next day Truus came with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. It was March and cold. Christopher met her in the kitchen as if by accident. “Do you shoot people?” he asked.

From this paragraph, which is the story’s opener, we know so much. For starters, there was a “Mrs. Pence,” who is now gone. Notice the use of the word “finally.” The ironing board was finally taken down, as if it had been a point of contention during her entire stay. And then Truus arrives with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. Splotched! You have to love this word. And even though you don’t know right away who Christopher is, you understand immediately that he must be a child, because no grownup would ask such a question! Lastly, notice how much time is compressed in this short graph. We get this idea of Pence having lived there, of Truus arriving and meeting Christopher, all in 6 sentences. It’s truly amazing.

During revision, one of the things I try to ask myself is, Are the sentences working as hard as they can? Is each word doing its job? Would less be more?

Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr Creative Commons