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 www.leestoops.com or on Twitter @leestoops

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

 

Nathaniel Tower

Nathaniel Tower is the founding and managing editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. Find out more about Nathaniel at nathanieltower.com.

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