I don’t review a lot of short stories, especially if they’re not part of a collection (which I realzie is a little hypocritical, considering that almost everything published on the site so far is a short story), mostly because I don’t read a lot of stand-alone short stories. The Unfettered anthologies usually have some good stories in them, and I read two titanic tomes of Asimov’s collected short stories, and of course there’s Arcanum Unbounded, but I simply prefer the novel format. Most of the time, I find that short stories just don’t have enough meat to them to really satisfy me, especially since most people cut off short stories even shorter than I make mine.
However, I made an exception this past week for a pair of short stories (they could almost be called flash fiction) that Brandon Sanderson recommends for studying dialogue. Since the stories were fine examples of both storytelling and writing craft, I decided to share a review for them, along with a review for Sanderson’s contribution to this technical style. Don’t worry: you’ll still be getting your review of The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, it just won’t be until next week.
They’re Made Out of Meat Review
Speculative fiction, that authorial term that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and all of their various offshoots, subgenres, and annoying relations, is known for what can charitably be called exposition, and uncharitably, info-dumping. Since we are dealing with different worlds that might not even be shaped like a sphere, with different histories, cultures, and laws of physics, and since our characters may not even be human, the logic usually goes that, regardless of the author’s skill and the techniques he or she might be using to disguise and integrate the exposition so that it is transparent to the reader and an engaging part of the story, that kind of description is a necessity in writing these kinds of stories. This story proves all of that wrong.
A recent post I wrote discussed how I’ve gone about improving my dialogue, but what that post did not touch on is sort of the other half of dialogue, which is characterization. Ideally, you want all of your characters to have their own voices in your stories, recognizable and distinctive to your readers, but that doesn’t mean using funny accents or weird filler words. It refers to patterns of speech and ways of looking at the world that are reflective of the character and communicate information both about them and about the world. A popular exercise to improve your ability to craft distinctive character voices is to attempt to write a dialogue involving your characters in which you strip away all of the dialogue tags. When nothing else is there, can you still tell who is talking when? All three of the stories I’m reviewing today are examples of when doing that exercise became an independent story.
Of the three, this is the truest example of that: every line of this story is dialogue, without a single tag, a single beat, or a single bit of narration or exposition in sight. Nor did the author take any shortcuts to make the task easier, as this story is entirely in the perspective of lifeforms so alien that they consider the idea of sentient, fleshy beings both incomprehensible and vaguely offensive, sort of like we might feel if a loaf of moldy bread started sending us e-mails (actually, that’s a terrible example). Although we never learn what they look like, or even what they are or how they refer to themselves, we learn a lot about the universe that they inhabit, the other kinds of entities that inhabit it, and even their personalities and roles.
There are only two parties to the conversation, which makes following this kind of tagless dialogue a little easier, but there are a few places where the voices are indistinct enough that they start to run together and become confusing. It’s a minor thing, and I’m certainly not asserting that I could do better, but this is why these sorts of dialogue sections rarely end up in finished novels. It’s simply too difficult to keep the voices separate and distinct to the reader, no matter how careful you might be.
That minor confusion near the story’s end aside, this was a both a neat writing experiment, and an enjoyable piece of short fiction. Considering that it will only take you a couple of minutes to read, I think it’s worth your time, whether or not you are looking to improve your own character voices.
While I more or less expected that I would enjoy They’re Made of Meat, I was less certain going into Wikihistory, which seemed less my kind of story. It’s one of those strange, epistolary pieces that is telling a “story” of sorts through letters, journal entries, or, in this case, forum postings. The concept is a time traveler’s forum, and aside from the usernames assigned to the different characters, there are no dialogue tags, no character beats, no description, exposition, or narration – just the posts on the forum, exactly as if this were a real internet discussion. I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected, especially when you consider that it is a time travel story.
This one doesn’t really have much in the way of plot, but it is a masterclass in characterizing through dialogue without the use of crutches like verbal ticks and weird accents or dialects. Each of the forum users is distinctive, real, and full-fleshed, despite never being more than a semi-anonymous poster on a forum about time travel. Aside from the fact that it sometimes prompts you to think a little too deeply about the paradoxes and practicalities of time travel, it is an amusing piece of writing, especially if you’ve spent any time reading real internet forums, which I suspect that most people have at one point or another.
That being said, I’m not certain that this can even really be called a story, since there is almost nothing in the way of plot. Yes, there is sort of a debate about a sort of temporal prime directive, and various characters/forum users attempting to circumvent that directive in various ways, but I’m not convinced that it qualifies as a plot. It’s still an enjoyable read and especially informative for its exemplary writing, and since it is so short I would say that it is again worth your time.
I Hate Dragons Review
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Brandon Sanderson recommends the exercise exemplified in the previous two short stories, and he has even posted one of his own efforts on his site. I Hate Dragons is the original form, and is fairly true to the pure dialogue format. It accomplished an impressive amount of world-building and character development through just dialogue. Then, because this is Sanderson about whom we are speaking, he went ahead and built out how the story would look if he were writing it normally, and not just for an exercise. That result is also posted on his website as an extended edition.
There’s not really a lot to say about this story that I didn’t already cover in the discussion of the previous two stories, so I will conclude by saying that, especially if you’re looking to improve your writing, that you should both read these stories, and maybe try the exercise for yourself. Maybe even post your efforts in the comments below the story. And even more of a maybe, I might post my own attempt at such an experiment.