Today in class we talked about the mechanics of dialogue, and how it’s a weakness for some writers and a strength for others. We read Robert Bausch’s short story, “Aren’t You Happy For Me?”, which I suggest you all read as an excellent example of external conflict (the dialogue) and internal conflict (the exposition).
You should also read David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” for another type of story where the dialogue is the entire story. Not only that, but he only provides half of the conversation, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. Disturbing and brilliant.
Besides talking about the pitfalls of dialogue, which can include talking heads and over-philosophizing, we talked about exercises that we each use as a way to strengthen our dialogue-writing skills.
I admitted to being a closet eavesdropper. One of the guys in the class pulled out a tiny composition book and admitted to taking it with him to the bar, which inspired another guy to pull out his own tiny notebook meant for the same purpose.
For our class exercise, we had to pair up and write a conversation together. This was a lot of fun. My partner and I began giggling because we were writing an argument that started over the lack of peanut butter… it was, as Dane Cook describes, a “nothing” fight. Yet, under the surface, there was real conflict. Amazing what can come out of five minutes of passing a journal back and forth.
Try this exercise with a friend of yours, whether they’re a “writer” or not. It’s a lot of fun, and inspires new story ideas, guaranteed.
- The first writer pulls out a piece of paper and begins their dialogue with the words “I’m sorry, but…”. They complete the sentence and pass the journal to their partner.
- The partner, after reading the sentence,writes a line (or paragraph) of dialogue which heightens the tension.
- Keep passing the journal back and forth, trying to throw curve balls at one another without delving into the absurd.
- Try not to rely on dialogue tags to reveal how the character is speaking.
- In fact, don’t use dialogue tags at all. Rely on your word choice and punctuation.
Do you have a favorite dialogue exercise? Let us know in the comments.