Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dialogue Openers are GOOD? Really?

I have unearthed a whole batch of statistics about dialogue openers and their prevelance. It's important to note that some teachers of light popular fiction and womag fiction state that it is a good thing to open with dialogue "because it's immediately interesting, engaging, intimate" and that at least one "teacher" states that "more than half" of such stories begin with dialogue.

I dealt with this partly in my article "Creative Writing Myths" but I've just unearthed this old piece of research. Worth reading. (Especially the results of The Ian St James awards)

Here are the results of a survey I did in 2005/2006

I looked at 2,467 Stories

1.98% Nobel Prize Winners
2.50% OHenry Prize Winners
2.94% Best American New Voices
2.96% Best American Short Stories
3.78% Selected Famous Writers
6.62% All Famous Writers Surveyed
7.09% Ian St James Finalists (but only 1% in Prizes)
8.79% Bridport Finalists (but only 1% in Prizes)

The OHenry's in Detail

020 18 02 10 OHenry Prize 1997
020 20 00 00 OHenry Prize 1998
020 20 00 00 OHenry Prize 1999
020 20 00 00 OHenry Prize 2001
020 19 01 05 OHenry Prize 2002
020 20 00 00 OHenry Prize 2005

120 117 003 2.5% OVERALL

5.44% OVERALL: 2,467 Stories.

The high percentage found for "all famous writers surveyed" really surprised me, so I looked again. Just four writers seriously skewed the figures. Two of those writers are dead (ie they wrote a long time ago, and one is in his eighties, ie much of his work is over 50 years old). Take out just four writers from a very long list and the percentage drops to 3.78%

I open a copy of "You've Got to Read This" a selection of stories chosen by writers are good examples of short-stories. 33 Stories, NO dialogue-openers.

In one debate on this, a respondent remarked saying that dialogue openers appeared in The Ian St James Awards, the New Writer and The Bridport Prize.

Well, first, OF COURSE THEY DO, because this is a lower standard of writing. It's beginner-intermediate writing!!

What we should expect (if I am right) is this.

The highest percentage of dialogue-openers will be in the batch of stories that don't make the long-list. The long-list will have a much lower percentage of dialogue openers, the short-list an even lower percentage, the prizes, lower still, and the WINNERS the lowest percentage of all.

I have no proof or firm figures of "also-rans" but I know from experience that the really bad stories I have judged OFTEN (20-50%) contain dialogue openers.

But I managed to get complete data on all the anthologized Ian St James stories (effectively the short-list) and the 1-2-3 prizes, and the winners.

Here is what I found. The columns are Stories/NO Dialogue/Dialogue/ Percentage

012 09 03 25 Ian St James 1989
012 12 00 00 Ian St James 1990
012 11 01 08 Ian St James 1991
012 12 00 00 Ian St James 1992
016 16 00 00 Ian St James 1993
016 14 02 13 Ian St James 1994
027 24 03 11 Ian St James 1995
020 20 00 00 Ian St James 1996-7

127 118 009 7% OVERALL

Now let's look at the top three and winners.

1989 AT THE STROKE OF TWELVE (HarperCollins)

NO 1st David Rose
NO 2nd Judy Forshaw
NO 3rd Belinda Raine


NO 1st Annie Hedley
NO 2nd William Walker
NO 3rd Louise Doughty

1991 MIDNIGHT OIL (HarperCollins)

NO 1st Faith Addis
NO 2nd Alan Dunn
NO 3rd Stephanie Ellyne

1992 BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS (HarperCollins)

NO 1st Jeremy Cain
NO 2nd= Francesca Clementis
NO 2nd= Peter Naylor

1993 FLYING HIGH (HarperCollins)

Shorter Category

NO 1st Kate Atkinson
NO 2nd Juliet McCarthy
NO 3rd James Maguire

Longer Category

NO 1st Philip Sealy
NO 2nd Hilary Waters
NO 3rd Min Dinning

1994 BROUGHT TO BOOK (HarperCollins)

Shorter Category

NO 1st Anna McGrail
NO 2nd Alison Armstrong
NO 3rd A S Penne

Longer Category

NO 1st Joshua Davidson
NO 2nd Mike McCormack
NO 3rd= Sue Camarados
NO 3rd= Bronia Kita

1995 PLEASURE VESSELS (Angela Royal Publishing)

Shorter Category

NO 1st Dick Bayne
Yes 2nd Hwee Hwee Tan
NO 3rd Bead Roberts

Longer Category

NO 1st= Kristina Amadeus
NO 1st= Maria Caruso
NO 3rd Nick Kelly

1996/7 PULSE FICTION (Angela Royal Publishing)


NO 1st Josephine Corcoran Algebra
NO 2nd Indira Debah Black Water Crossing
NO 3rd Carrie Worrall Gathering


NO 1st Michel Faber Some Rain Must Fall
NO 2nd Kevin Doyle Do You Like Oranges?
NO 3rd David Evans Dead Man's Shoes

How strong must the statistics be for people?
Of 36 awarded prizes, just ONE prize (second) began with dialogue)

Again the quality-prediction holds. A decent comp, 7% of the finalists overall are dialogue openers (because the entrants are not yet fully-fledged, regularly published writers) but THE WINNERS? It falls to just that single second place (2.8%)

So like it or not, dialogue openers are (generally) NOT associated with good authorship, have never won an ISJ Award, haven't won a Bridport that I've a record of.

The lower you go in quality the more often you see dialogue openers. That suggest that beginners and poor writers think dialogue openers are good and experienced quality writers have abandoned them.

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