A short story: When a couple of submissions in my critique group didn’t materialize, one of our members had a creative solution: Instead of critiquing our own work, the ever-resourceful David Popiel suggested that we analyze a short story by another author.
Bingo! We were back in business! He even supplied the story: a 6-pager called The Sea Change by Ernest Hemingway. So we settled in at our favorite bistro, Jackie’s Grillette, and we were off and running. Friends, great food, and Hemingway — not a bad combo. All we really needed was a bottle (or two or three) of vino. Maybe next time.
Looking at how and why a masterfully written short story works on the page and in your head as a reader can be a great way to strengthen your own writing. The Sea Change, for example, is 80% dialogue and 20% description. In the story, a couple experience a rocky moment in their relationship. As readers, we learn about the nature of the problem and how they handle it solely through dialogue. Since dialogue is so critical in fiction, looking at how Hemingway used it to tell his story and what we can apply to telling our own was very helpful. A few ideas to ponder:
Not a word is wasted: Every word in the exchange has a job to do and works hard at it.
Setting is minimized: With a few deft strokes, we learn that the couple are sitting at a table in a bar. There’s virtually no description to distract us: All the focus is on the couple.
Dialogue drives the story: It doesn’t just reveal how the characters felt, it also moves the story forward. As the couple’s exchanges grow more heated, the story gains speed.
Tension is manipulated: At several key points in the story, Hemingway breaks away from the couple to a bartender, abruptly shifting the point of view, then swinging back to the couple. This dramatically heightens the tension between the couple. It also gives us a sense of perspective: We shift from a specific couple to the bartender’s view of couples he’s seen.
Repetition is key: In many of the couple’s exchanges, they mirror or twist each other’s words. Since this often happens in real conversation, it makes the couple seem authentic. It also moves the story forward seamlessly and gives it a dynamic narrative energy.
If you want to sharpen your dialogue, The Sea Change is well worth reading. Write on!