jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,
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A Powerful Demonstration on Writing Dialogue

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.

Sigh.
Tags: teaching, writing
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