The short story as a conversation is a format we get a lot of at Periphery. It is a framing device that I particularly enjoy; I find it to be a wonderful way to bring focus to a story. That focus, however, comes with it’s own set of drawbacks. If a story consists solely of dialogue, that dialogue has to do many things: provide background, characterization, and context, while at the same time actually tell a story. In order to fit within the confines of a short story then, each line of dialogue has to be incredibly efficient at doing each of these tasks. A beautiful example of that efficiency in dialogue comes from Tess Lydon’s Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake.
The introduction of Mar within the story hooked me the first time I read it. It does a great job of avoiding of the major pitfalls of dialogue heavy stories, and is efficient at introducing characters and the context. Take a look:
Evan: What are you doing out here?
Mar: It’s raining.
Evan: Come inside
Mar: It seems almost a little too on the nose if you ask me. Rain on the day of a wake. The universe is pathetic.
Evan: Mar, please come inside.
Mar, Forecast says it should rain harder on the day of the funeral. It’s like the universe couldn’t resist the cliché
Evan: Everyone is looking for you
Mar: Then tell them to come onto the front porch
In a story of only dialogue it is perilously easy to slip into a single voice, where the author is talking to her or himself instead of characters having conversations. Lydon sidesteps that pitfall by having the characters initially talk at each other rather than with. When the characters initially attempt to talk over each other two distinct voices are able to emerge. It takes Mar eight lines to even acknowledge what Evan is trying to tell her. It is within those eight lines that the reader gets a deep look into both characters, and it makes both of their introductions memorable. The reader instantly knows Mar is self-centered, ironic, and not shy about showing her feelings. About Evan we can see that he is obedient, more pragmatic, but still cares for Mar and is used to putting up with her. Not only do these lines efficiently characterize the two main characters, and develop two distinct voices, but also sets the scene. It is incredibly efficient writing.
Again and again the efficiency of the story is impressive. The efficiency overcomes the lack of tools usually available in prose when a story is restricted to dialogue. The conversation between Mar and Evan is carefully crafted so that each line does an incredible amount of work. As Mar is talking about all the ways that Aunt Deb was ignorant, she is giving context to both her and Evan’s character, and while she is ranting, Evan is trying to distract her with carbs, again informing both their characters in a different way. I would challenge readers to find more than a handful of lines within this story that don’t serve multiple purposes. I know I couldn’t.
A comparison I wanted to make here was between Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. When I recently read Gaiman’s Hugo award winning novel what surprised me most about it was how inefficient it was. Long segments of chapters detailing characters never to be seen again popped up several times. Page-long descriptions of places only seen once in the story before being quickly cast aside were not uncommon. A look into how a story specifically uses inefficiency can be telling into how it can and should be used.
Before I go any further it is important to note that short stories by definition have to be more efficient than novels, simply due to size. To tell a complete story in less words necessitates efficient storytelling. It is something that Gaiman uses knowingly. The inefficient style is used for a specific purpose, but the different formats is worth noting.
The inefficiency of American Gods ties into the central themes of the novel. One of the main themes of American Gods is what happens when people forget. What happens to the old gods when people forget about them in a modern world? Do new gods take their place? Where their older gods before the ‘old gods’? Does that mean there is an endless string of newer and older gods gaining and losing worshippers? Questions like these greatly apply themselves to inefficient storytelling. If people worship a endless string of gods one after the other, that system relies on inefficiency: one then the next, and then the next, rather than many at one time. That concept easily parallels Gaiman’s descriptions of places and characters quickly discarded. A more specific example of that inefficiency is in how Gaiman uses conjunctions:
“The Lights were off, and there was silence, mostly, nothing but the hum of the refrigerator, and, somewhere in the building, a radio playing” (Gaiman 256)
I noticed early in the novel that Gaiman tends to use several conjunctions in sentences, rather than lists of commas in order to elongate sentences and lists. The sentences become diced up into discrete clauses, all jumbled after the other. Does that sound familiar? It is an inefficient style all the way down to the syntax, but it is used for a specific reason.
Between these two stories one can see the disparate ends of efficiency within storytelling. What initially drew me to Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake was it’s focus. The conversation seems monolithic alone on the page, like its message is supposed to ring out. It is a finely tuned story where every aspect ties to itself or does many jobs. Keeping stories tight and short is a much more reliable way to achieve that effect so finely captured by Lydon. The beautiful exception to prove that rule is American Gods. It shows how powerful the space can be to develop character and place at the expense of efficiency. Gaiman uses the inefficiency knowingly and purposely; it is a wonderful example of how to break convention through the understanding of it.