Behind the Spark: Telling a Story through Dialogue

It’s sometimes called the “worst sin” a writer can commit: the dreaded info dump. Here we explore an example of telling a story through dialogue without slipping into the info-dump trap.

This post is part of the “Behind the Spark” series, in which Spark contributors and editor Brian Lewis explore and discuss work that has been featured in the anthology.

There’s a term writers apply to awkward passages which serve only to clumsily convey important backstory or characterization:

The dreaded “info dump.”

It’s sometimes called the “worst sin” a writer can commit—which may have just a touch of hyperbole, but it’s certainly not far off. The reason info-dumping is so frowned upon is that it forces the reader out of the story for a moment, forces the reader to process information being told to him or her—instead of treating the reader as an engaged participant in the story.

There are two common types of info dump: the expository dump and the “As you know, Bob … .” In the first, the narrator tells the reader key information directly:

The citizens had been unhappy ever since the bread shortage last October, which had been fabricated by the government as a punishment for the attempted revolution.

In the dialogue-based info dump, or the “As you know, Bob… ,” one character explains something to another character that they both already know—and therefore have no reason to actually say aloud other than to fill the reader in.

“Sometimes, Bob, I look up at our sky, which is green because of the unusual chemical composition of our atmosphere, and I wonder whether we will ever be happy again, the way we were before the bread shortage last October, which we both believe was fabricated by the government as a punishment for the attempted revolution.”


Don’t get me wrong here: backstory is important, and so is conveying a character’s personality, but there are ways to show these things effectively without dumping information on the reader. David Farland has several great articles on worldbuilding in his Daily Kick in the Pants series, so for the exposition side of things, I’ll turn you over to his professional advice.

For telling a story through dialogue, I present as an example “Scarlet, Crimson, Red” by Sadie Bruce, included in Spark, Volume IV. There are two obvious participants in the conversation: the narrator, and the girl she meets at the audition. While it’s true that they make statements about “the way the world is,” the two characters contradict each other in a way that directly reveals more about their personalities than their surroundings. Indirectly, their arguing and corrections—”You’ve got it all wrong!”—effectively convey the turmoil and uncertainty of the girls’ environment by leaving us uncertain which girl knows the truth and which has been the victim of propaganda.

There’s a third, less-obvious participant in the conversation, too: the silent second-person “You,” addressed in asides by the narrator, but known to both the narrator and the girl at the audition. A cynical reader of this article will point out that the things the narrator says to “You” are already known to both characters, seeming to match my example of a bad info dump above. However, these asides serve a very different purpose: it’s important that we understand that the narrator knows “Your” life story by heart, and these asides show us not only how well the narrator knows it, but hint at the kind of connection she has to “You” and the process she must have gone through in order to know that life story so well.

The effective telling of a story through dialogue is one of the main reasons I selected “Scarlet, Crimson, Red” for publication in Spark. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

— Brian

P.S. One other thing I enjoyed, unrelated to the point of this article, is that this piece effectively makes “You” a distinct character in the story; the reader is never addressed, and the fourth wall is never broken. Another Spark piece that does this well is Inferno, by Andrew Blackman.

Behind the Spark: “Her Fruitful Shore” by Brian Reeves

This post is part of the new “Behind the Spark” series in which Spark contributors and editor Brian Lewis explore and discuss work that has been featured in the anthology. Here, author Brian Reeves responds to our previous post in the series.

I’m honored to be selected for the first installment of “Behind the Spark.”

A few years ago I found an idea knocking around in my brain, the kernel of a story about several men brought to a crisis in their friendship by an accidental act of violence against an animal. It took a while for the idea to become anything, as I tried on different locations, circumstances, and potential victims. The first big piece came when I settled on a Green sea turtle in the Caribbean. I immediately pictured the scene: a sugary beach, sunny and windswept, miles from civilization. In the first draft, there were way too many characters (I believe it was eight) and their motivations were almost nonexistent. I shelved the draft but continued to be inspired by the story itself. I just knew it needed more time to “ferment.”

The final piece came when my wife, Rae, became pregnant. Over the next few months I was initiated into that timeless fraternity of men whose partners are carrying their growing child in their wombs, and the experience turned out to be fraught with far more longing and fear than I anticipated. The future felt ripe with potential for joy, but also for agony—a miscarriage, an accident … I have never felt so anxious and so blissful in my whole life.

One of my most inspirational writing instructors was Robert Olen Butler, who has an almost Zen philosophy on storytelling. He believes that we all have an inner core of raw, volcanic emotion — joy, sorrow, fear, longing — that seethes deep within our subconscious. The best writing comes when one is willing to stare down into one’s “white-hot center” and draw forth those emotions. While I won’t claim to always be successful, I’ve found Butler’s approach has helped me tap into a lot of emotional energy that had been lacking from my earlier works.

Translating all that anxiety into the pain of loss, then changing the main character to someone who is broken, powerless, haunted by dreams denied, gave me the emotional link I had been seeking all these years. I sat down and wrote out “Her Fruitful Shore” in a day or so, then offered it up to my writing group before putting it through several rounds of edits.

There was never a point where I had to decide on P.O.V. or the inclusion of flashbacks—I slipped right into third-person present tense, which is a combination I find comfortable. I’ve used it in my short story “Wild Horses” (published by Sand Hill Review), in my novel, A Chant of Love and Lamentation, and I’m even using it in the novel I’m currently writing. Thinking about it, I believe I like present tense for its immediacy and urgency. And I like third-person limited in present tense because it remains neutral, privy to the thoughts and emotions of the main character, though not close enough that the narrator merges with the character. It feels like riding shotgun, sympathetic and engaged with the character, yet not in a position to view the experience through the lens of time.

Handling the flashbacks needed a light touch, but I always knew they were central to the character’s view of his present, and the key to understanding his emotional response. To a haunted man, the past lives in the present, so jumping into his memories seemed natural. In the end I’m pleased with how it all turned out.

— Brian Reeves

Behind the Spark: “You Can’t Do That in Short Fiction!”

This post is part of the new “Behind the Spark” series in which Spark contributors and editor Brian Lewis explore and discuss work that has been featured in the anthology.

Here are three things, in no particular order, which you can’t do* in short fiction.

  1. Flashbacks.
  2. Narrative in third-person present tense.
  3. Flashbacks when the narrative is in third-person present tense.

* By “things you can’t do” I really mean “things which are impossibly difficult to do well.”

Let’s talk about this.

Flashbacks. Despite some editors’ firm bias against them, flashbacks are not inherently bad. It’s just that in short fiction, where you need to get to telling one story and telling it well, the economy of words does not generally leave room to effectively develop both a main timeline and a flashback timeline. Plus, to let the reader know that you’re switching between the timelines, you generally need to change verb tense or start a new section—or even a new chapter. Flashbacks, if used at all, work better in novel-length work than in short fiction.

Third-Person Present. This is one step more difficult to do well than first-person present tense. In both cases, unlike past-tense narratives, in present tense descriptions of “this is happening, now this is happening, and now this is happening,” it’s impossible for the speaker to know anything before the reader knows it. This means the author not only has to keep straight the characters’ point-of-view, but also the narrator’s. That’s extremely difficult to do.

Both at the same time. Imagine for a moment that an author has attempted not one, but both of these impossible feats in a short story. In this imaginary story, not only do we (author and reader) have to keep track of multiple timelines, but also keep POV consistent and correct for the timeline we’re in. And then, just to up the ante of impossibility, imagine that the author hasn’t even given us the standard clues of changing verb tense for the flashback scenes and perhaps setting them apart with asterisks—* * *—or some similar section divider.

Like me, you’re shaking your head already. Obviously, you can’t do that in short fiction.

And yet, in “Her Fruitful Shore,” Brian Reeves does exactly that. Not only does it, but does it brilliantly—and that’s why I selected it for Spark, Volume I.

The story follows Delroy Lawrence as he’s hired to take a small group of American tourists out to a secluded Jamaican beach in his wooden boat. I encourage you to read once for the amazing storytelling, then once again for literary analysis: watch carefully for the one time Reeves tells us he’s switching timelines—and how he deftly accomplishes it without changing tense at all.  I’m not going to tell you where it is, but I’ll warn you that it’s so well done it’s easy to miss.

From that point forward, we readers are never warned that the story is switching between “now” and “flashback,” but we’re also never confused. Reeves gives just enough context at each switching point to allow the reader to seamlessly follow along, completely immersed in Delroy’s life. As a result, “Her Fruitful Shore” remains one of my favorite stories—and a go-to example of well-crafted writing.

I guess you can do that in short fiction.

— Brian Lewis

Read “Her Fruitful Shore” and more at, or continue to the response from Brian Reeves.