Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Fantasy

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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

A Confluence Of Rivers by Lauren Simon

This chapter has a great deal of potential. It’s solid urban fantasy, with contemporary characters, magical contretemps, and a nice bonus in the relationship between mother and daughter. I love the sugar glider and the intimation that exotic pets are actually magical beings.

The author’s note asks about dialogue, and I paid particular attention to that as I read the chapter, because dialogue is one of those things that almost can’t be taught. You can’t tell students to listen to real-life conversations, because in real life, most of what we say to one another is what I call filler: ritual phrases that don’t really say anything. Hello, goodbye, how are you? Mostly, when we talk, we don’t really say anything. We’re establishing social connections, but we’re not moving our story forward.

In fiction, dialogue is the “good-parts version.” It feels convincing and realistic and immediate, but it keeps the stock phrases to a minimum. Whatever our characters say is directly relevant to the story. We leave out the extraneous bits, but if we do it right, readers will feel as if they’re getting the whole conversation.

It’s not just the words in quotation marks. It’s how the conversation is framed, what the characters do as they speak, how they interact physically and emotionally as well as verbally. That’s what I’d like to look at here.

The dialogue itself mostly does what dialogue in fiction is supposed to do. The narrative around it, in this draft, seems to be trying to figure itself out. There is a great deal of stage business. Each short line of dialogue is surrounded by characters doing things, sometimes several things in a row:

She twisted the gold bangles on her left wrist. “Your father made some bad decisions.” My mother inhaled sharply and let the air out through her teeth. She looked a picture on the wall of the three of us in front of a row of roses.

Exposition brings the narrative to a halt, filling in backstory or explaining the context:

Peanut was a sugar glider: tiny and big-eyed with a striped head and skin stretched between his limbs. I’d found him as a kid. Peanut could levitate and occasionally produced items from the folds of his wings like thimbles, buttons, and coins. I don’t know where they came from, but they weren’t from our house. He was a squidge: part-animal, part-magic, part-demon. On the power scale, squidges were smaller critters, demonics were medium-sized and dangerous, and demons topped them all. My business dealt exclusively with squidges or at least it had until today.

Sometimes both happen at once, as here:

My mother walked into the kitchen, turned on the electric kettle and opened the cupboard. She had a cupboard full of normal and magical remedies—from her time when she worked in a naturopathic shop. It was one of her many jobs she’d worked before Pregúntame, her advice column, had taken off.

Sometimes too there are odd gestures, phrasing that’s a little off true:

“It hurt you,” she guessed and bit her lips, holding them inside her mouth until she spoke again.

This almost reads as if she bit her own lips off and started to swallow them.

Each of these devices interrupts the flow of the dialogue. The characters’ conversation stops, starts, stops again. There’s so much to process that the reader loses track of what the characters are talking about.

In revision I would suggest reducing the stage business to a handful of actions that are directly relevant to what the characters are saying. Cut the eye action—gazing, staring, and so on—to one or two examples. Set up the actions around the tea in a line or two at most, then focus on the dialogue. Cut back the gestures likewise, pick one that’s emblematic of each character and let her do it once, twice at most.

The same applies to exposition. Choose one or two details that sum up the physical setting, and let those contain the rest. Pare away repetition and think carefully about the order in which details appear: make sure they follow logically. When it comes to backstory, think about what the reader absolutely has to know right here and now, and condense that into a sentence or two.

The key to effective dialogue is to keep the focus on the dialogue, and to make sure the framing devices enhance rather than overwhelm it. The tighter and more focused both speech and actions are, the stronger the scene is likely to be.

–Judith Tarr

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