Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Month: May 2014

Dialogue Contest Tips from the Masters (Part 2)

Our 6th Annual Dialogue Contest is now officially accepting submissions. With prizes bigger than ever this year, you want to be extra prepared with your stories. A couple weeks back we published the first of two posts filled with tips from our past contest winners. Here’s two more interviews to help get you over the dialogue-writing bumps you may experience.

Mark Jordan Manner – 3rd Annual Dialogue Contest Winner

Winning Story: “Poem About Writing a Poem”

BS: How does your approach to writing a dialogue-only story differ from your normal writing process?

MJM: I know I won’t need a dictionary or thesaurus.

BS: What are the key ingredients for good dialogue?

MJM: I think the opening line is really important. It should grab the reader and drop them right into the flow of conversation, make them care about it, make them invested in the exchange before they even know or understand what exactly is being discussed. Make them want to know.

Also, the F word.

BS: What is one piece of advice you have for contest entrants?

MJM: Only enter contests run by the magazines you love.

BIO: Mark Jordan Manner lives in Toronto. His stories have appeared in Grain, EVENT, Prairie Fire, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, Riddle Fence, The Feathertale Review, and Little Fiction. He will begin his MFA at The University of Guelph in the fall.

Annam Manthiram – 2nd Annual Dialogue Contest Winner

Winning Story: “Why Won’t You”

BS: How does your approach to writing a dialogue-only story differ from your normal writing process?

AM: To be honest, I don’t write dialogue-only stories very often, so they are very challenging to me!  Whenever I approach a story, I try to view it as a highly dimensional process.  What is going on in the background and in the foreground of the scene, and how does each affect each other and the scene that is unfolding?  Manipulating these elements can lend dimension to the relationships between characters.

In a dialogue-only story, the scene is entirely dominated by the foreground (the conversation).  There are no descriptive elements to indicate what is going on in the background, apart from what the characters may be saying about it.  So I ask myself at this point: what happens when most or all of the scene is in dialogue?  How does that affect the narrative?   Am I getting the dimensionality that I want, and if not, how do I tweak the dialogue so that I will?  My answers determine the starting point of the conversation.

BS: What are the key ingredients for good dialogue?

AM: Dialogue in fiction isn’t really a replication of how people speak in real life.  It is more of the author’s way of guiding a conversation.  The writer must go back to intent.  What do you want this conversation to say, and how should it resonate with the reader?   I think of good dialogue as slanted; people talking at each other, not really to each other.  If you listen to people talking out and about, you will find some great examples.

Also, you must understand the motivation of a character, her background, her likes/dislikes, her upbringing, etc. in order to write dialogue for that person.  The way we speak, the words we use, our manner of speech are all direct reflections of who we are.   You cannot write good dialogue unless you know your characters.

BS: What is one piece of advice you have for contest entrants?

AM: Don’t give up!  I submitted many times before my story was chosen.  Nobody gets better without practice and rejection.

BIO: Annam Manthiram is the author of the novel, After the Tsunami (Stephen F.  Austin State University Press, 2011) and Dysfunction: Stories (Aqueous Books, 2012).  A graduate of the M.A. Writing program at the University of Southern California, Ms. Manthiram resides in New Mexico with her husband, Alex, and sons, Sathya and Anand.


Now that you’ve read tips from the masters, be sure to submit your entry to the 6th Annual Dialogue Only Contest for a chance at big prize money and literary fame!

Dialogue Contest Tips from the Masters (Part 1)

The 6th Annual Bartleby Snopes Dialogue Only Contest will soon open (June 1st), and this year the contest is bigger than ever. Before you send those submissions, we thought you might like to read some advice from our past winners (including one of this year’s guest judges, Ronald Friedman). Here is part one of what our winners had to say about the challenges and successes of writing dialogue-only fiction.

Ronald Friedman – 5th Annual Dialogue Contest Winner

Winning story: “Night Orderly”

BS: How does your approach to writing a dialogue-only story differ from your normal writing process?

RF: Not a great deal, but there are several key elements.  I spend more time thinking about the story in its entirety. I want to make sure that the story can be told in dialogue without any awkwardness in construction that draws attention to the style rather than the story itself. My goal is to write a story that the reader won’t even notice is entirely dialogue.

I imagine the story in set pieces, no more than three, and decide what action and character elements I want to include in each. This is lot more planning than I put into most other stories.

I prefer to allow short stories to develop a momentum of their own, often taking me and the characters to places I had not thought about before, but I need the whole story for dialogue only.

I like the plot tied down more because I am going to spend most of my effort revealing subtleties of the character.

I rewrite as much as any other story, often more. I must have written my prize winner six or eight times and that does not count the repeated editing that I usually lie to myself about and call rewriting. The latter rewrites are often just a few word changes, but the purpose is to strip away another thin layer of character to show what is underneath.

(For example, I have an 800 word story I am working on now that has a simple plot, but complex characters. Two men are alone in a government room waiting to have some official documents signed that will allow them both to escape death. One man has the necessary papers, but is paralyzed by his fear of taking action or facing risk. The second man has no resources and would take any risk. The story reveals small elements of each man’s character until we understand why one man’s fear of taking a chance to save himself actually dooms him and he suffers the same fate as the second man who had no resources at all.)

BS: What are the key ingredients for good dialogue?

RF: Dialogue has to sound natural, but not be verbatim speech. Also, different characters need to speak differently. Not dramatically so; in fact the more subtle the differences, the better, but I should be able to tell from what someone says who is speaking from content, pace, word choice, sentence length, anything.

Don’t bury back story or any form of narration in dialogue. It is always obvious and usually makes the story unreadable.

Also, real-life dialogue is not linear. Nor should it be in a short story. Twists and turns and overlap give the dialogue its sense of real people talking.

BS: What is one piece of advice you have for contest entrants?

RF: Character and plot trump style, format, and any other strictures or guidelines you come up with for your story. When you are down to plot and character, character trumps plot. This is not unique to dialogue-only stories.

I wrote two stories of about 1000 words each for last year’s contest and both were rejected. (My third submission won)

Reviewing carefully, I see I violated this guideline in both the rejected stories. I relied on clever—gimmicky—plots instead of character dynamics to move the story. A plot that winds up with a surprise ending is fine, but not as good as a character who has changed in an important way because of the events of the story.

This works for me. Others may be better plotters than I am. A number of the prize winners in years past have been remarkably clever.

BIO: Ronald Friedman is a retired psychologist living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is the author of two nonfiction books and over 50 articles published in magazines and newspapers, but has been writing fiction for only the past three years. His short stories include “The New Suit” published by Huff Post 50 and “Time Remaining” in the Rind Literary Review.

Lee Stoops – 4th Annual Dialogue Contest Winner

Winning Story: “Open Me”

BS: How does your approach to writing a dialogue-only story differ from your normal writing process?

LS: In all honesty, it doesn’t differ so much. No matter what I’m writing, my goal is to move the story forward, and I carry that rule to dialogue whether it’s woven into the prose or it’s the only thing on the page. When I write a first draft, I try to keep myself from stumbling on rules or form so that I might just get a draft out. It’s in the re-crafting that I start to cut the unnecessary, the redundant, the useless. I think it might be easier in writing dialogue to let the chatter get away from doing its job of moving the story along, so I probably pay closer attention to that.

The significant difference might be in the time it takes. Developing a way for characters to say something they wouldn’t normally say (something I’d write into the narrative through exposition or otherwise) to open something up in the story, without it feeling forced or unnatural, is tricky. Looking back on dialogue-only stories versus normal process stories, I see I have two to three times as many drafts of the dialogue-only stories.

BS: What are the key ingredients for good dialogue?

LS: Natural sound. Yeah, I know, everyone knows this. But it fascinates me, because what we read and hear as natural on the page isn’t usually the same thing we’d hear or say in conversation. It’s kind of enigmatic, written dialogue. Natural but not natural.

As I’ve already said, it must move the story forward. If it’s not growing and dragging the character and his/her role along through the story, it’s unnecessary.

In that, there must, must, must be a story. It’s not enough to listen to people talk. The “rules” of story apply – there must be need, there must be motivation, there must be some kind of struggle.

Lastly, and this is especially important in dialogue-only, the character voices must be unique and quickly established (and consistent). This is not to say cartoony or exaggerated. We all have our sounds – the ways we say words, our dialects, our vocabulary. As in any prose, the characters need to produce the same identity within their speech.

BS: What is one piece of advice you have for contest entrants?

LS: Be weird. I keep hearing writers telling other writers to be brave, and I get that. I like that. But I also think it’s kind of general and a bit vague (which, works because we’re all standing up to wildly different fears, so we’re free to interpret). In writing a story with only dialogue, why not be brave by taking the opportunity to get weird? I’d rather read a conversation between a lonely tree hugger and his mother after losing his virginity to an amorous ponderosa than read another conversation over well-aged bourbons on oily coasters atop a sticky bar.

BIO: A graduate of Antioch University’s MFA program, Lee Stoops teaches and writes in the mountains of Idaho with his wife and children. He is a fiction editor for The Citron Review and has served as an associate nonfiction editor for Lunch Ticket. His work has recently appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review, Hippocampus, Spry, and Bartleby Snopes. More at or on Twitter @leestoops

Be sure to come back in a couple weeks for more tips from other Dialogue Contest winners.


Should a writer re-submit based on feedback?

Q: You give feedback, but why don’t you accept re-submissions?

A: Changing your piece might not be the way to go. However, our feedback might help you find the right venue, and help you ensure future submissions here are a good fit.

Let’s suppose you have a flash fiction submission that has been rejected for something specific, like “anecdote” or “vignette.” You don’t have to change your submission. Consider that your submission (as it is) might be a perfect fit for another venue.

In other words, for our venue we tend to go for a specific range of flash fiction. Roughly said, “in under 1200 words, go nuts on dramatic arc, plot and characterization.” So, painstakingly pack in everything needed, then take out only the words that make the story’s soul cry. In reality, a stunning number of submissions under 1200 words do not take advantage of that space allowed. Remember, “vignette” is a four-letter word, here. So is “anecdote.” And “saturated fats,” but that’s another post.

How does BS come up with feedback?
Did you know that, for every polite feedback response we give, it’s been distilled from a string of multiple editors’ comments probably five to ten times as long? For example, it’s possible that I might argue internally (on the submitter’s behalf) that the piece is perfect in every word, the way it is. Perhaps the submission poetic, multi-layered and sufficient to cast a stunning light on a moment. This is a moment in which the narrator accomplishes “something awesome”. How often do you see that? I might ask. Yes, the response comes, but it’s just a vignette. These characters could be anyone

And that gets back to our preference on Flash Fiction. In the example, the response to you might be,

It’s possible to relate the entire sequence of events–even the layering and the unique coolness and voice–in a much larger story expanded to the format mentioned earlier, under the word limit. 

But wait–oh-oh–would that mean it was undeveloped? Preposterous. However, if you do a re-write and tackle our feedback, perhaps you might discover something along the way.

Wait…No amount of work will get an acceptance?
Let’s be careful here. The original question was, why don’t we want re-submissions? Don’t mess up what you already have on our account. You know the guidelines, you know the tone of our content. If you submit a square peg for us to put in a round hole, then we will give you feedback, saying, “we’ve concluded that this is indeed square…why would you submit such silliness? Good luck somewhere else.” If we do this, you should find a home for your beautiful square peg. Not re-submit to us after “some tweaks.”

Given a specific piece and a specific venue, there may never be a way to change the piece. The process of changing a piece to meet specific feedback from one venue is a serious consideration. There are thousands of venues out there. Piece shows you are done learning your craft? Maybe. Piece too hard to re-visit? Possibly. So you conclude: feedback noted, move on. That is an acceptable outcome!

On the other hand, if you have exhausted the possibility that there are no skill issues at stake, then at the end of the day, you are your piece’s only advocate. Are you willing to perform surgery on a piece and re-craft it to the tone and requirements of a particular venue? It’s an unusual creative writer that is willing to do that. It’s a good skill to have in the commercial world for example, but certainly not required here.

Moving on with that piece is ok
So, yes, we give feedback, if you ask. No, we don’t want that piece resubmitted, because it’s painful all around and possibly the wrong path for that piece anyway. Yes, we want you to submit again, if you have a developed piece you think is a good match.

6th Annual Dialogue Contest Opening Soon

Our 6th Annual Dialogue Contest will open on June 1st. We have raised the opening prize threshold this year from $300 to $500. You can find complete contest rules here.

Some quick information:

Prizes: A minimum of $500 will be awarded, with at least $300 going to the grand prize winner. Our five finalists will also appear in Issue 13 of the magazine due out in January 2015. Last year we awarded $945 in prize money. For every entry over 50, an additional $5 will be added to the total prize money.

2014 Prize Structure:

1st Prize: $300 minimum + $3 for every entry over 50
2nd Prize: $100 minimum + $1 for every entry over 50
3rd Prize: $50 minimum + $1 for every two entries over 50
4th Prize: $30 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50
5th Prize: $20 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50

Entry Fee: $10 for unlimited entries (only one entry allowed at a time; see Response/Notification section for more details). Entry fee is due at time of submission and will be collected through Submittable.

Be sure to read our dialogue writing tips for advice on crafting your entry. You can also read our past winners while you’re there.

April 2014 Submission Stats

During the month of April, we received a total of 224 submissions. Here’s the daily breakdown:

bartleby snopes submission stats

Of the 224 submissions, we accepted 7 of them. Our April acceptance rate was 3.13%, up a full percentage point over March.

bartleby submission stats aprilOur “with feedback” categories continue to be our most popular. We’re not really sure why almost 30% of our submitters request no feedback. Our response time tends to be about the same regardless of category (flash novels excluded). Our acceptance rate tends to be a little higher in the “with feedback” categories. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions regarding what this means.

Of the stories we rejected, the primary offenses were still undeveloped and anecdote. A handful of submissions blatantly disregarded our submission guidelines, which we think are pretty clear.

We did notice two promising trends:

1. On the whole, the quality of submissions went up this month.

2. We didn’t receive as many stories that ended with violent, inexplicable deaths.

We’re not sure why this is the case. Maybe it’s because the weather is a little better now. Maybe it’s because writers had more time to spend on their craft without worrying about AWP. Whatever the case, we hope it continues.

Now go send us your best fiction.