A lot can be revealed through a conversation. Characters grow right before your eyes, the plot keeps rolling, the story stays engaging, and the pages don’t stop turning.
Dialogue is a sharp storytelling element.
Starting off, it stressed me out. My characters all sounded the same, the conversations wouldn’t add to the story, and I couldn’t tell if an interaction was necessary. So, I’d just avoid the dialogue.
Not the way to go. You practice, but first…
…to write the best, we read the best and hope some of the talent sticks.
Here are five short stories you can use as sources when crafting your dialogue.
1. The Dead by James Joyce
This short story is included in Joyce’s collection Dubliners from 1914. It’s a bit longer than a short story. It’s more of a novella.
It begins with a married couple, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy attending an annual Christmas party hosted by Gabriel’s aunts and cousin. He navigates the party, having awkward conversations with various guests, and at dinnertime gives a speech that ends on a good note. As the party comes to an end, Gretta seems a little off like she’s contemplates something. Once at the hotel, Gabriel is excited to have a passionate night with Gretta, but she’s not in the mood. Instead, she shares a piece of her past. Gabriel is distressed that he hadn’t known this bit of information about his wife.
Conversation is the core of the large get-together. This piece demonstrates how to work with multiple characters. We get a variety of dialogue tags, characters are consistently active, and the strong sense of place helps us keep track of everyone. Then the big reveal, in the end, deepens the tone of the story.
2. The Man Who Was Almost a Man by Richard Wright
This piece was published in Wright’s 1961 compilation, Eight Men.
It starts with a young man named Dave heading home from working in the fields. He’s irritated that he keeps getting treated like a kid. He decides he’ll buy a gun to prove he’s a man. After persistently begging his mom for permission, she agrees to let him buy the gun but demands he brings it straight home for her to take care. He doesn’t do as she says. He brings it to work with him the next day, and it gets him into trouble. When facing the consequences, he comes up with another way to prove he’s a man.
This piece is an example of how to navigate dialogue without having to excessively use dialogue tags. With each interaction, we witness Dave’s constant motivation. Through a close third person telling, we know a lot more about Dave, and we hear how his plans differentiate to what he tells everyone else. This piece is also a prime example of dialect.
3. The Vomitorium by John McNally
My copy of this story is an earlier version that appears in McNally’s collection Troublemakers in 2000. A revised edition appeared in The Book of Ralph in 2005.
Two eight grade boys, Hank and Ralph, get dressed for Halloween at the last minute. Ralph’s cousin Norm is going to pick them up and take them to a party. Norm is dating Jennifer who’s Patty O’Dell’s older sister. Hank and Ralph hope this party will get them evidence behind the rumor that Patty modeled underwear for Sears when she was seven or eight. The boys end up spending the whole night driving around with Norm while he tries to make quick money to settle a dilemma he got into a few days ago. Hank is caught in the middle of it and learns what Norm did.
The dialogue in this piece is playful. It’s authentic to the behavior of young boys and what they sound like. Through the first person telling, we experience the night’s journey through Hank. We endure the same uncertainty Hank meets as Norm withholds information. This use of dialogue lets the reader observe what is being said and what isn’t.
4. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
This short story was included in Hemingway’s collection Winner Take Nothing in 1970.
An old man drinks at a café nearing closing time. Two waiters, one young and the other older, watch him. They discuss the old man’s previously known suicide attempt. The younger waiter is fed up with the man sticking around. He’s eager to get home to his wife. The older waiter is more understanding of the man needing “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” to drink. The younger waiter makes the man leave. After the man is gone, the waiters keep talking. The older waiter states he’s one of those people who likes to stay out late at the café. When the younger waiter leaves, the older lingers before returning to his own home.
There are no names. This piece is nearly told all in dialogue. Although it may feel like not a lot happens, it’s still an example of a full movement because we get so much in just a few pages. The third person telling feels distant in the beginning but becomes tight to the older waiter at the end. We learn the distinction between these two waiters. How they act towards this old man, and what they say fuels their character development.
And behold number five!
5. Spokane by Peter Orner
This short story is in Orner’s collection Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. It was published in 2013.
After so long, Stace needs to finally tell a part of her past to her boyfriend, Barry. She recalls first meeting a previous boyfriend named Edward. They had sex the first day, Stace moved in, and fell in love. She felt like she had finally made the right decision in her life, her work coming along, Edward and his calmness. Until the day Edward leaves. She makes plans for when he’ll return. They’ll say their goodbyes, no hard feelings. But he never comes back to the apartment. She stays there, keeps going out, and meets new people. Then one night the lights go out in the building. She finds Edward in the basement.
I love this short story. It’s told ALL in dialogue and no quotation marks. Stace and Barry are distinguished by paragraph. I admit it took me a few readbacks in the beginning to get the hang of the setup. It’s a story-within-story form. We don’t know what place this is being told from and physical gestures aren’t described, but we can still see it. The strong inflections in Stace and Barry’s voice reflect the kind of people they are and put the tone of the story through a journey of its own. There’s slight tension throughout, but the mood shifts once we hear Barry start to react to how this telling is going to end.
Whether it’s a lively get-together ending in misery, a person proving themselves again and again, youth running into a non-youthful situation, an understanding between strangers, or releasing a damaging portion of the past, our characters need to speak.
Talk is valuable.
As proven by these five writers, dialogue can be done in several ways and bring so many different things to a telling. If you find yourself having a hard time nailing your dialogue, take a break and read.