Is there such a thing as too much dialogue?; Online submissions to literary journals
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: April 28, 2009
|Can a novel or short story have too much dialogue? |
Some stories rely heavily on dialogue. Others have very little. Most strike a balance somewhere in between. To determine what's right for your own story, consider the effect so much dialogue has on the reader's experience. What atmosphere does it create? How does it impact the reader's understanding of the characters or the situation?
Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" is predominately dialogue and that's part of what makes it effective. Two men walk into a diner for a meal. They try to order dinner, but are too early. Frustrated with their server, George, they settle on eggs instead:
"Got anything to drink?" Al asked.The tension is palpable. The men aren't familiar with Summit and it's clear they have disdain for it. George's agreement to the sarcastic remark about Summit's nightlife seems to irk the men, and their antagonism toward George escalates. The story gets rather sticky—the men are in town to kill a local boxer—and the emphasis on dialogue adds to the mystery and increasing fear of these men who have such sinister intensions.
"Silver beer, beyo, ginger-ale," George said.
"I mean you got anything to drink?"
"Just those I said."
"This is a hot town," said the other. "What do they call it?"
"Ever hear of it?" Al asked his friend.
"No," said the friend.
"What do you do here nights?" Al asked.
"They eat the dinner," his friend said. "They all come here and eat the big dinner."
"That's right," George said.
"So you think that's right?" Al asked George.
"You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?"
Keep in mind the role of dialogue and its limitations. Some dialogue-heavy fictions fail because the dialogue is used carelessly. Make sure you're not cramming information into dialogue when it might be more appropriate in narrative, as in this line where Tom talks to his wife:
"Renee, there's no way I'm driving that way to my mother's. We both know it shaves twenty minutes off the trip, but my sister died on that very same route at the sharp curve just months ago. I can't bear to go by it."Renee already knows it's a short cut and that his sister died there. Would he really say this? When we speak we take into consideration what the listener already knows—without even thinking about it—and that's not happening here, so it sounds forced.
Also, be thoughtful when considering what to include in an exchange. Crafting a scene is all about selectivity and you should include only what's important. Here, I've added much more than necessary to a scene featuring this same couple on the evening they're to go to Tom's mother's house:
"I'm glad you're home," Renee said from the kitchen. "I told your mom we'd be there by five." This kind of post-work chitchat might be commonplace in real life, but it's not terribly exciting in fiction. If the heart of the scene is to reveal Tom's insecurities about the drive, we don't need all this fluff taking up space.
"It was a rough day at work." Tom took a tumbler from the cabinet. " I never thought I'd get out of there."
"The Schneider case again?"
"Yeah," Tom said, pouring the gin. "And reviews are coming up next week, too."
"You work so hard," Renee said.
"What can I do?" Tom said.
Since there's no set formula for how much dialogue you can use, keep an eye out for these common pitfalls and consider the effect of a dialogue-heavy read in the context of your work. This should help you figure out if you've used too much or just the right amount.
I notice more journals are accepting work online. Is this really a good idea?
You're right, there's a big move to online submissions in the world of literary journals. This seems to be a result of several factors: a growing desire to preserve the environment, the efficiency of new submission programs, and a desire to connect with more geographically distant editorial boards and writers. Some journals are even requiring online submissions and no longer accept traditional mail submissions except in special circumstances. For writers who have been licking and stamping envelopes for eons, this can seem unsettling.
Many writers and editors have been pleased with online systems, noting better tracking of submissions, easy notification systems, and shorter response times because of the efficiency of getting submissions to readers. (The Virginia Quarterly Review even noted on its blog an increase in angry letters from writers who were concerned that their response time was too quick.) Cutting out the postal process also means saving some money and frustration: no need to buy envelopes and stamps or worry about upcoming increases in postage for those SASEs.
No system is foolproof. But that's true both online and with paper. The submission process itself is one founded on trust—that your work will be handled and read with care. The best way to put your mind at ease hasn't changed: submit to reputable journals.
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.
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