Creative Writing Myths

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, August 2004
Recently, some of my Boot Campers attended a writing weekend, and at one lecture they were told "Open short stories with dialogue!" They were also told that 60% of "womag" (women's magazine) stories were dialogue and that using "said" was a huge no-no, better to use animal-type speech tags like purred and growled.

I say recently (but the steam is still coming out of my ears) but in a later discussion with some of the Boot Campers (drinking champagne in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral) I questioned, not just this as advice, but in terms of the actuality, the empirical facts.

I have seen (and was taught) "Open with a bang," "Start in media res," "Use lots of dialogue." Barely weeks ago I read these items as "cardinal virtues" on a website (after the website had been recommended on yet another website!)

The point then is two-fold. Is the advice good or bad (or restricted to one or more genres)? Or is it plain wrong, whatever genre we investigate?

Oops, there's a third point -- does "advice" of whatever veracity get carelessly extended into areas for which it was never intended? There's a problem here, and that's how repetition and embedded quotation can solidify myths into facts.

I like to visit Lundy Island, a haven of peace in the Bristol Channel, Once I remember reading, in a serious book, that "A million ships a year sail past Lundy." It was only weeks later that the number finally hit home (after I had gone to use it in a university lecture) and I thought, "HOW many?" Simple sums. That many ships per year meant 2,740 ships per day passing the island to dock in really, a small number of ports, some of which in their heyday could only berth 20-30 ships. The number was way, way wrong. The simplest thought should have told us that AT LEAST 114 ships an hour were sailing by. So why should the "fact" be in more than one academic book? Repetition and weak reading! In all probability someone wrote "a million ships have passed Lundy's shores" or "a million tonnes of shipping pass the island." One mis-quotation, a few reinforcements and bingo, we have a fact.

So I have looked, first at short-stories, at literary shorts, at general fiction shorts, then at "womag" shorts, coffee-break stories often with simple twists in the tail. What percentage of stories are dialogue? What percentage of stories open with dialogue? How often do stories open with a big bang? Can stories even popular, non-literary stories sell without the big-bang and dialogue openers?

So I looked at one hundred stories from womags. 28% opened with dialogue, NONE began with a big bang, about 60% opened in media res but in a very gentle, often genteel way. As for 60% of the story should be dialogue -- Really? I found just 15 in the 100 had anything like half dialogue.

So, very simply. What those speakers said? UNTRUE.

Now what happens when we move away from womag writing? I looked at copies of Peninsular, Ashes, World Wide Writers: all mid-range, from light fiction to semi-serious fiction but hardly "high-lit" The figures were 16% beginning with dialogue, 2% big bang, 80% in media res and just 11% that were over half dialogue.

Looking towards more serious fiction, in Best American Short Stories, working backwards from BASS 2003 (and looking at BASS of the century) the incidence of dialogue openings is very small, under 5%. Big bang beginnings are even rarer and almost no stories were 60% dialogue. After a while I barely scanned the stories as this became so obvious.

So let's see what we have:

Begin with Dialogue Big Bang Media Res Half Dialogue
28 00 60 15 womag sample
16 02 80 11 general fiction sample
00 04 55 02 literary fiction sample
15 02 65 09 overall


So, despite the admonitions of these lecturers (where do they get their numbers, the sky?) the facts are that across all fiction less than one sixth of stories open with dialogue, less than 10% of stories are over 50% dialogue (never mind their much vaunted 60%). And what about "Open with a bang"? Well they (big bang openers) are about as common as rocking-horse droppings! When I looked for in media res openings I found things much more difficult. Often an opening would interest me and I'd put a tick in the IMR box but often, in fact, it was not "action" but language, or setting or voice which attracted me. The 66% quoted there is probably nearer 50%, but someone else can decide. So what conclusions can we make? First, don't trust my figures! Do your own survey, of whatever field you're interested in. Whatever that field is I KNOW that you'll discover these three statements: Are simply WRONG. Even when we talk of a very formulaic market such as womags, the figures and the admonitions of "experts" simply don't tally.

The truth is an opening should interest the reader. Complicated isn't it? The opening should catch our eye, get our ear, but not crudely, not in some over the top, exaggerated way but "cleverly", subtly, even sneakily.

Dialogue can help a story zip by, can give it "air and space" but how much is the key question. It is most certainly NOT "at least 60%." It's not 50%.

It's whatever the story requires to be right. In some stories there was no dialogue or a few bare lines. In "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" it was 99%. In many womag stories it looked to be 20-40%, in some not a lot at all. But don't take my word for it, instead, do your research.

Better still, forget formulas and write to move people, or to to entertain, and write what feels good and wholesome to you, what would please YOU.

In the end it's the words, and the heart of the writer, not some damn bean-counter, or worse, someone who is passing on (through a photocopy darkly) misinformation that simply doesn't tally with the reality when you check what's on the shelf.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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