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Today I gave my creative writing students a dialogue writing exercise that I posted about here in 2009.

In a nutshell, two students talk to each other so that each speaks twice.  One of them records what they said.  That produces four lines of raw dialogue like this:

“Are you practicing with the band tonight?”

“Yeah, we qualified for state, so we’re doing extra time.”

“Congrats! Where’s state this year?”

“Colorado Springs. The same place we did it last year.”

The exercise is, without changing any of the dialogue, to insert thoughts, actions and descriptions so that the reader is in a scene instead of just seeing a record of speech.

Some students attacked this prompt fairly unimaginatively, only inserting speech adverbs, like this:

“Are you practicing with the band tonight?” she asked hastily.

Loudly, he said, “Yeah, we qualified for state, so we’re doing extra time.”

“Congrats! Where’s state this year?” she said quietly.

Quickly, he replied, “Colorado Springs. The same place we did it last year.

Some of the students used all the possibilities, turning this into a much fleshier dialogue like the one that started this way:

Tapping her foot against the chair while twirling a strand of hair around her finger, Tanya thought of a dozen ways to approach him--he was so gorgeous!--but they all sounded stupid.  Finally, in desperation, she tried, "Are you practicing with the band tonight?"
But one of my groups was genius, and they realized that they could put anything outside of the dialogue to create truly interesting effects, like this:

Sheila pushed the detonator cord into the C4.  She didn't like how greasy the cord felt, and she didn't like the smell of explosives, but she had to get the job done.  "Are you practicing with the band tonight?"

Peering through his binoculars while scanning for the inevitable blue-shirt patrol, Alex said, "Yeah, we qualified for state, so we're doing extra time."  He flicked the infrared filter into place to check for heat signatures.

"Congrats!  Where's state this year?"  She wondered if there would be State this year.  If the blue-shirt tanks rolled across the demilitarized zone, they'd all be on the front lines, even the trombone players like Alex.

Alex put his binoculars down to look at her for the first time since they'd started setting the ambush.  He sounded exhausted.  "Colorado Springs, the same place we did it last year."

When this group read their dialogue and explained their theory that the dialogue was more fun if what was happening around it was unexpected, the other groups started laughing and coming up with their own wild versions, like this:

Ferdinand, the hermaphrodite squirrel, squeaked to his alligator friend, "Are you practicing with the band tonight?"
Or this one:

"Are you practicing with the band tonight?" asked Reefboy.  He flicked his butterfly knife open and closed, making sure that the sun caught its sheen, sending razor flashes of light into Allison's eyes.
It was a fun exercise.  The kids came up with the idea that the raw dialogue itself could go absolutely, absolutely anywhere.  Once they grasped that, all the dialogue in the class became more interesting, and they were on fire for a half hour.

And then the bell rang.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
Great exercise. It sounds like you motivate your students well.

Grand Junction always makes it to state for band. Also, I thought Colorado Springs was the only place that it's been held. (used to play the flute ;p)
Feb. 25th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
Please tell your students that I really want to know what happens next with Sheila and Alex.
Feb. 25th, 2011 01:24 am (UTC)
I was just thinking the same thing...
Feb. 25th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2011 05:34 am (UTC)

So... I courious how yer average High School'er knows how Explosives feel and smell... :o)

And I too, want to know about the further hours of Sheila an Alex!

Feb. 25th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC)
I think the details on explosives were imagined.

Edited at 2011-02-25 05:52 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2011 05:47 am (UTC)
That's the kind of writing exercise dynamic I love. Thanks for sharing this.
Feb. 25th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
What a great exercise. It's always amazing to see people go from "I don't know what to do" to "I can do ANYTHING--and I will!"

In real-life actions, inaction is what my friend malkatsheva calls "failure of imagination." Your exercise demonstrates that's a very accurate description. Your students flipped the "imagination" switch to ON. How wonderful that must be to witness!
Feb. 25th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
It was a really, really good moment.
Feb. 26th, 2011 06:03 am (UTC)
How rewarding! You, sir, are genius!
The kids were delightful. How marvelous to watch that whole thing unfold. A blessing in the midst of challenge. Glorious!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )