From the Slush Pile: What’d She Say?

Frankfurt-Oder, BauarbeiterSo, we’ve talked about the beginning, the end, pluck, resiliency, and life—and yet here we are, still, wading through the slush pile. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? The world may never know, and how to have a reader pass on your work feels just as elusive.  A tip: nothing is more effective than good dialogue to keep a reader engaged, and nothing can turn a reader off faster than schlocky conversation. Picture Charlie Brown listening to his teachers: womp, womp.

Author, Elizabeth Bowen, says, “Dialogue is what people do to each other.” It should be used to convey attitude, not information. When dialogue is used for exposition it sounds stilted and almost always falls flat, taking the reader out of the moment. Dialogue, when done right, provides economy in revealing character through word choice, dialect, and inference, to name a few. Done well, it pushes your story forward by suggestion. Mark Twain says, “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.”

When Jim Shepard guest edited Ploughshares, he said he’s “drawn to protagonists who leave us to sort through what they’ve figured out, what they can’t figure out, and what they won’t try to figure out about themselves.”  These are stories rich in subtext, and one of the best ways to deliver subtext is through dialogue. If you think about it, often the purpose of conversation is to conceal genuine feelings; what is not being said is more important than what is revealed on the page.  The omissions deliver true character.

One of the most important tools for clawing your way out of the slush pile, however, is also the effective use of summarized dialogue.  Not all conversations are worthy of direct speech.  The overuse of he said/she said diffuses the power of the words you are trying to deliver.  Take a look at Amy Hempel’s, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried:”

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it,” she said.

I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you see it end on.

If Hempel delivered all of that in direct speech, you would lose the power of what is quoted, the richness of the details, the pacing and it would most likely add a certain sentimentality that would not serve the story.  Mastering summarized dialogue can be tricky.  To really understand it, go to the masters and copy down their prose and try to feel how it works. Take the summarized dialogue and transform it into direct speech, so you can really understand the choices they made.  Then go back to your own work and see where you can economize.

For me, a go-to book in dialogue and subtext is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge. You also can’t go wrong looking at any of these stories:

Those are some of my favorites, but take a look at any author you admire and see what they do with dialogue. In practicing your craft you have to keep reading.

Sometimes reading the greats, makes me feel like my own work will never measure up—but Richard Bausch says, “When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don’t have any doubt.”

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About sarahbanse

Sarah Martin Banse is a Senior Fiction Reader at Ploughshares. She was a Dean's Fellow at Emerson where she received her MFA in Fiction and was the recipient of the Graduate Award in Nonfiction. She was named one of Boston's Top MFA Students by Kneerim and Williams Literary Agency. She is at work on her first novel and a nonfiction book proposal. She lives west of Boston with her four children.
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8 Responses to From the Slush Pile: What’d She Say?

  1. Sarah, this is great advice regarding dialogue. I agree, Olive Kitteredge is a great read for subtext. I look forward to reading your other suggestions.

  2. The Angry Luddite says:

    Ah, this is a great entry. Dialogue always seems to be the final struggle for me, and I rewrite it a million times to the end. Once more unto the slush, dear friends, once more.

    That Elizabeth Bowen quote is great, too – I haven’t read her in ages, but I still think about The Death of the Heart sometimes. The dialogue there was something, subtext in spades.

  3. sarahbanse says:

    Before you submit-make sure you read your story out loud to yourself. You will immediately hear and feel where your dialogue falls short. And yes, that Elizabeth Bowen quote really is spot on.

  4. The Hempel example is wonderfully indicative of how a writer can find the middle ground between showing and telling when it comes to dialogue. We certainly don’t need the entire conversation, but there is a fine line between just plain summary and something more evocative. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Sarah Banse says:

      Thanks Amber. It seems to me that Hemple gets it right most of the time. She is someone to read when you’re looking for smart choices and wonderful economy.

  5. Paul Ruben says:

    Dear Ms. Banse- The following seems especially useful: “Dialogue provides economy in revealing character through word choice, dialect, and inference, to name a few.” Still, is it fair to argue that writing so-called good dialogue is so utterly intuitive that teaching dialogue may be nearly impossible? Is there vocabulary that effectively instructs writers to hear their characters speak, to hear their rhythm, pace and word choice, and then recreate precisely what they hear in a fashion that sounds pitch perfect to the reader? I might want to argue that good dialogue emerges from a writer’s intimate connection to the subtext, to their characters’ immediate state of mind and emotional/intellectual history, and to who they think they are and how they want those they interact with to know them.

    • Sarah Banse says:

      Dear Paul,
      I would agree. That’s why I think the Bowen quote is particularly powerful. “Dialogue is what people do to each other.” No doubt, there is something intuitive about drafting strong dialogue but I think craft can be mastered in paring it down, knowing when not to say something and relying on subtext.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and close read.

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