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Bartleby Snopes, the literary website, runs an annual ‘dialogue only’ short story competition.  It’s an unusual concept, but if, like me, you write the odd short play, (odd being the operative word)  it’s not unheard of. A more singular curiosity of the competition, is that, having paid your fee and sent in your story, they come back at you with an e-mail saying that you’re not in the top five, but would you like to re-submit for free? I don’t know whether or not they do this with everyone, but I ended up having several goes – and none of them in the top five, but hey! They say, that in this way, they hope you get the value of that initial fee; and you know what? I think they are right.

Having those goes  reminded me how much I like writing dialogue, and one of the differences between writing dialogue for a play, and dialogue for a ‘dialogue only’ short story, is that you don’t even have the names of the character next to speeches as you do in the script. The first couple I tried were simple two-handers. Games of verbal ping pong, easily played you might think, but even there, unless you pay attention – in the writing as well as the reading – you get to lose track of who is saying what.

When you’ve written a couple of those though, you can’t resist feeding in another character, or five! That’s when it gets really interesting. I remember once a student writing, with the aid of narrative, a scene involving a poker game with five players. Not only did it take up an awful lot of page, but it was impossible to follow who was saying what, to whom, and why! We worked on sorting it out, and ended up using a technique familiar to auctioneers, where, no matter how many people want to buy whatever he (or she) is selling, the auctioneer takes bids from only two at a time. Something similar can be used to simplify the narration of mob-handed conversations. Working without any narration, and with no attribution either the problems are little more complex. It’s not just about differentiating the voices, but realising that with some of the asides, remarks, and comments that are really just part of the background scenery, it doesn’t matter with every utterance just who said it.

I remembered that I’d written a piece a couple of years ago, in which about half a dozen characters discussed someone whose funeral they were about to attend. Topped and tailed by short paragraphs of narrative that placed them in a bar, I wanted to create the illusion that you were overhearing voices, the owners of which could not be seen. I still harbour urges to make it into a film, in which you would see the talkers’ hands as they sat around a table, lifting and replacing the glasses. Threads of conversation would imply the speakers, but never exactly pin them down. Some voices would be more distinct than others, as they might well be in an overheard conversation. Making it film though, would require a decision as to precisely who was going to say what. I suppose a staged version could swap some speeches around, from performance to performance, but a recording, in film or sound only would have to commit itself, and that would lose, rather than gain, something of the original intent.

I like writing pieces like this, but the more my attention has been directed towards them, the more I have come to think that they are not truly ‘short stories’. The distinction, for me, is that a short story is a piece of narrative fiction, and the important word there is narrative – a lot of short stories are narratives of real events, with the names, times and venues transposed ‘to protect the innocent’! A dialogue, though, does have an author, when created by an author. It does not have a narrator, and it is the narrator’s take on the events he, she, or, presumably, it, or they even, recounts that is angle of the story we are being invited to slide down! To have a dialogue without narration still gives us the chance to have an opinion on what is being said, but for me, it is a drama, rather than a story.

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