Writing a story with little dialogue; taking an editor's advice on revisions
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: November 24, 2009
|Q: Is it all right to write a story with very little dialogue?|
Not all stories need extensive dialogue. Edwidge Danticat's short story "Night Women" follows a twenty-five year old Haitian woman who sees "suitors" to make a living. It takes place one evening as she waits for her nighttime visitor while her son sleeps nearby and has minimal dialogue. The story's tone is thoughtful and ruminative: Brandi Reissenweber
There is a place in Ville Rose where ghost women ride the crests of waves while brushing the stars out of their hair. There they woo strollers and leave the stars on the path for them. There are nights that I believe that those ghost women are with me.
Near the end of the story, her visitor arrives. Still, dialogue is spare:
"How is your wife?" I ask.
"Not as beautiful as you."
This maintains the tone of the story and, at the same time, highlights those few lines that are spoken.
Daniel Orozco's short story "Orientation" is essentially a new employee's tour of the workplace. It doesn't have dialogue in the traditional sense. Rather, the story unfolds as one long monologue:
Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone.
The reader is not privy to the new employee's contribution to the conversation, but hears the narrator's responses:
You must pace your work. What do I mean? I'm glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday. If you have twelve hours of work in your IN box, for example, you must compress that work into the eight-hour day. If you have one hour of work in your IN box, you must expand that work to fill the eight-hour day. That was a good question. Feel free to ask questions. Ask too many questions, however, and you may be let go.
Hannah Tinti's short story "Home Sweet Home" tells the story of a neighborhood in the aftermath of a double murder. Exchanges are largely summarized, such as this one where Lieutenant Sales arrives on the scene of the crime:
He interviewed the police who found the bodies first. They were sheepish about their reasons for going into the back yard, but before long they began loudly discussing drywall and Sheetrock and the prose and cons of lancet windows (all of the men, including Lieutenant Sales, carried weekend and part-time jobs in construction). The policeman who had thrown up in the bushes went home early. When Sales spoke to him later, he apologized for contaminating the scene.
This approach makes the story feel like a documentary, which accentuates the mystery and compliments the exploration of the various relationships in the neighborhood.
Don't ban dialogue from a story too quickly. It's common in fiction because it helps to create authenticity, build character, dramatize, and reveal the nuance of a moment. Eliminating dialogue is a risky move. Do so only after careful consideration of the impact it will have on the reading experience.
[The three short stories mentioned above-"Night Women," "Orientation," "Home Sweet Home"-can be found in Gotham's Fiction Gallery anthology.]
Q: When publishing a story, do I have to take an editor's advice on revisions?
Here's the short answer: It's your story. You choose what—and what not—to revise. But there's more to this issue. Let me fill in some of the details.
Usually a story will go through some sort of revision between acceptance and print and in many cases this close edit puts a polish on the work before it's published. In fact, many publication contracts state that a story's acceptance is contingent on revisions. Sometimes these revisions are light, other times they're extensive. Usually an editor will mention more significant revisions upon acceptance. Or, if revisions are particularly lengthy or complex, he will not accept the work outright and instead encourage you to resubmit after you've revised. Always read contracts and other correspondence closely so you know what to expect.
The publication process can help you improve your work, so keep an open mind. If an editor is willing to engage in this revision process, he sees something promising. Do give serious and thoughtful consideration to the suggestions. This is a valuable opportunity to see your story through the eyes of someone with expertise and experience. Still, you may not agree that the suggestions are in the best interest of your story. Discuss your concerns with the editor. The conversation may allow for better understanding of the proposed revisions or open up new avenues in the story that intrigue you both.
In the end, not taking an editor's advice may mean your story doesn't get published at his journal. (This isn't always true. It depends on how strongly the editor feels about the issue he's asking you to revise.) Don't fret. That just means your work isn't a good fit with that particular journal after all. Keep submitting to find the right fit.
Your story—and your relationship with editors—will be strongest when you are open to the possibilities for improvement and you stay true to your intentions.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of Brandi's other Q&A columns are available to registered users.
--Posted Nov. 24, 2009