The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
I love mysteries and thrillers, and if they have an SF or supernatural twist, so much the better—so I enjoyed this chapter. It has a nice grounding in the physical setting, and I get a sense of the characters, notably the protagonist and Spooky, who has a manic-pixie-dreamgirl vibe about her.
What I’d like to talk about in this Editor’s Choice crit is a particular aspect of craft: Dialogue.
Dialogue is an interesting animal. Some writers can spin it off just about automatically, though for them it can become so much its own thing that it loses track of plot and pacing. Others struggle with it.
Truly realistic dialogue and fictionally realistic dialogue are two completely different things. If you go out and record actual conversations, there’s very little story-meat in them. They mostly consist of what I call filler: Hello, how are you, what are you up to, I’m fine, nothing much, and so on. These preprogrammed phrases serve as social lubricants, and provide transitions into and out of human interactions, but they don’t as a rule convey actual, unique or relevant information.
In fiction, there’s this thing called narrative economy. The writer pares away extraneous details and focuses as directly as possible on the themes, actions, words, and concepts that are directly relevant to the plot and help to move it forward. He may scatter the text with red herrings, especially if he’s writing a mystery or telling the story through an unreliable narrator, but those details are also carefully chosen to misdirect and distract. They’re there for a reason.
Or to put it another way, the story we read is the good-parts version. Everything else either exists in the background or simply doesn’t need to be there.
Dialogue works the same way. If anything, because spoken words stand out so dramatically from the surrounding text, it’s even more important to prune away the excess. The reader will fill it in as applicable, or the writer can do so with a quick line or so of framing. Then what’s actually on the page is the information that moves the story from that scene to the next.
New information, or new light on information already conveyed, is the engine that drives plot. Dialogue is a great way to make this happen, but even more than narrative and exposition, dialogue needs to be directly on point.
Readers are quite good at picking up implied information, which in dialogue would be most stock and filler phrases. That’s not to say those phrases should never be there—a well-applied bit of conversational filler can be a great vehicle for character development or narrative irony. But for the most part, if it’s not actually saying something, it doesn’t need to be said. The reader will get it, and you can get straight to the point of the conversation.
In this chapter, dialogue does several things. In the scene at the Ascendance building, Sorgen questions employees about Dr. Parsons, with a side dish of snarky interaction with the receptionist. The next scene features a subset of dialogue, a phone conversation with Spooky, during which Sorgens sets up a face-to-face meeting. A few changes of venue later, Sorgen reviews a video that conveys important information, followed by the meeting with Spooky and, shortly thereafter, Kelli. The chapter ends with a heart-to-heart in the car between Sorgen and Spooky.
Each form of dialogue tries to do a different thing. It undertakes to move the story forward, establish character and interaction, expand the protagonist’s (and therefore the reader’s) knowledge of the case, and introduce information that will be relevant later. Even coming in cold, without having read the opening chapters, I get a sense of who Sorgen and Spooky are, what they are to each other, and how the various subsidiary characters fit into the picture.
These are all excellent goals, with good support in the needs of the story. Wher the dialogue as written falls short is in the predominance of filler over substance.
This is particularly true in the Ascendance sequence. We get the throat-clearing portions of the conversation—greetings, introductions, stage business (body movements and expressions, especially), and general setup for each interrogation—but the actual interrogation happens effectively offstage, in synopsis. Here’s the bread, here’s the mayo, but there’s no meat in the sandwich.
The meat is where the story is. The dialogue that’s written can for the most part be replaced with quick sketch-and-framing segments, and what’s currently summary needs to be written as dialogue. Basically turn the scene inside out: turn dialogue into summary and summary into dialogue. And then you’ve got a living, vibrant scene with characters who come alive on the page.
I’d also, as a matter of characterization, wonder if Sandy the brassy receptionist fits the setting. Are her comments appropriate to the corporate culture of which she is the immediate public face? Is Sorgen responding appropriately in light of who they both are and what his job is? Would Sandy say the things about her boss that she says to Sorgen, in that setting, where she could easily be overheard? Does this make sense? Is it part of your overall plan? If so, you might clarify that her extremely loose lips are a plot and/or she’s a mole, and this is a performance designed to elicit some information or action that will help resolve the case.
The fondness for filler carries on through the rest of the scenes which feature dialogue. Do you really need all of the details in the phone conversation, for example? Can it be shorter and punchier, while still conveying his very avuncular relationship with her (which is borderline creepy—if not intentional, maybe tone it down)? Do you need the hello-goodbye parts? Can you just get right in and then when it’s done, shift scene without losing any key information?
The later segments of dialogue move more quickly, though Kelli arrives and leaves a bit too fast to keep up with—you might frame that a little more solidly. I wonder too, as her conversations with Sorgen evolve, if Spooky is a little too little-girl in the way she talks and acts. Is she running a con? Is he in on it, or is he in denial? Do you want her to come on so strongly?
How old is she, exactly? She talks as if she’s prepubescent. This is something that’s probably established in the earlier chapters—it just caught my eye here, in the way she talks and acts. She seems very young, emotionally if not physically. The words she uses and the way she looks and moves point to immaturity and dependence on the protective Uncle Ricky.They might also, in a fuller context, point to her manipulation of him through plays on his sympathy and his protective or fatherly instincts.
All in all, I see plenty of potential here, especially once the dialogue comes into its own. A little less filler, a little more story-stuff, and you’ll be good to go.