Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Is it all right to write a story with very little dialogue?

Not all stories need extensive dialogue. Edwidge Danticat's short story “Night Women" follows a twenty-five year old Haitian woman who sees “suitors" to make a living. It takes place one evening as she waits for her nighttime visitor while her son sleeps nearby and has minimal dialogue. The story's tone is thoughtful and ruminative:

There is a place in Ville Rose where ghost women ride the crests of waves while brushing the stars out of their hair. There they woo strollers and leave the stars on the path for them. There are nights that I believe that those ghost women are with me.

Near the end of the story, her visitor arrives. Still, dialogue is spare:

“How is your wife?" I ask.

“Not as beautiful as you."

This maintains the tone of the story and, at the same time, highlights those few lines that are spoken.

Daniel Orozco's short story “Orientation" is essentially a new employee's tour of the workplace. It doesn't have dialogue in the traditional sense. Rather, the story unfolds as one long monologue:

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone.

The reader is not privy to the new employee's contribution to the conversation, but hears the narrator's responses:

You must pace your work. What do I mean? I'm glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday. If you have twelve hours of work in your IN box, for example, you must compress that work into the eight-hour day. If you have one hour of work in your IN box, you must expand that work to fill the eight-hour day. That was a good question. Feel free to ask questions. Ask too many questions, however, and you may be let go.

Hannah Tinti's short story “Home Sweet Home" tells the story of a neighborhood in the aftermath of a double murder. Exchanges are largely summarized, such as this one where Lieutenant Sales arrives on the scene of the crime:

He interviewed the police who found the bodies first. They were sheepish about their reasons for going into the back yard, but before long they began loudly discussing drywall and Sheetrock and the prose and cons of lancet windows (all of the men, including Lieutenant Sales, carried weekend and part-time jobs in construction). The policeman who had thrown up in the bushes went home early. When Sales spoke to him later, he apologized for contaminating the scene.

This approach makes the story feel like a documentary, which accentuates the mystery and compliments the exploration of the various relationships in the neighborhood.

Don't ban dialogue from a story too quickly. It's common in fiction because it helps to create authenticity, build character, dramatize, and reveal the nuance of a moment. Eliminating dialogue is a risky move. Do so only after careful consideration of the impact it will have on the reading experience.