Writing Prompt: Ridiculously Difficult Dialogue Assignment (part 2 of 2)


You have created your two characters and sketched them out. By now, I hope you know them pretty well because you are going to thrust your characters together in a crisis situation. Your goal is to tell the narrative primarily by using dialogue. The constraints of the prompt are as follows:

  1. Tell the narrative of a crisis moment (you can define what crisis means, but narratives thrive on engaging tension) using dialogue almost exclusively to reveal the narrative’s action in four pages or fewer.
  2. You are permitted one prose paragraph per page, but the paragraph may be no more than three sentences. Use it wisely.
  3. Characters are only allowed to answer each other directly twice per page. (In literature, films, or plays, the expected answer is not noteworthy, and some of the best writers of contemporary dialogue (think Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino) are good because they write in a style that is different from how we expect people to actually speak. Case in point: “Where are you going?” asked Jim. “I’m going to the store,” said Mweldi. This is neither exciting nor revealing dialogue. But it changes: “Where are you going ?” asked Jim. “Out for coconuts and a quart of rum,” said Mweldi OR “What’s that on your hand?” asked Mweldi. “The store was closed, and I thought I could get what I needed for free,” said Jim. The first example here is a direct answer. The second is less direct and is a bit surprising in how much detail it adds about Mweldi. The third is the least direct of these example; we are left to inference about how what Jim did trying to break in affected his hand.) Mastering indirect dialogue compels readers to engage more closely with the text. When the answers are automatic, readers can quickly inference what a logical answer might be, and so the dialogue gets more or less glossed over. When the answers are strange or force readers to inference, they have to engage their mind at a higher level in order to comprehend the narrative and the speakers.

You probably think you have paid close attention to or have been involved in enough conversations in your life to identify good dialogue and perhaps write it yourself. You are probably not correct. The material difference between speaking and writing are vast, and you have to find a way to acknowledge that gap when writing dialogue.

For example, think about how many great conversations you’ve had. I hope you have had at least a few. Now, write a verbatim transcript of that conversation. Most of you cannot do it. Even if you could, you are not likely to be able to remember the nonverbal communication, grunts, tics, pauses, etc. Conversations and the spoken word have a tenuous existence. What is written, however, has (the illusion of) permanence. Someone who reads writing, even writing meant to mimic the spoken word, could ponder it for a theoretical eternity. So dialogue in literature or film has a different material value than your great conversation or even that strange, strange snippet of discussion you heard on the quad yesterday.

This exercise is another that begs you to reveal how you identify with and represent (mimesis) the reality created in texts. Do you need to have dialogue be verbatim and develop “truth” through adherence to real conversations? Do you remember conversations through emotions or visually and are comfortable modifying them to match how your memory perceives it? How do inanimate objects or abstract ideas participate in dialogue? Will your dialogue break down the so-called fourth wall and allow your own authorial voice to enter the dialogue, a dialogue about the dialogue you are attempting to create, perhaps using New Narrative techniques?

For Later
If you are interested in writing prose, you will have to wrestle with dialogue at some point. Pay close attention to dialogue you enjoy reading and dialogue you don’t. Try to glean the writer’s own perception of their creation of dialogue. Does the writer have a lot of dialogue? She probably thinks she is good at writing it. Is the dialogue in a novel or story limited? Does the text warrant this or is the writer covering up for a weakness at writing dialogue? What techniques does the writer use to account for a dialogue deficiency?

Once you have finished your ridiculously difficult dialogue narrative, make a chart that briefly tells the plot of your narrative. Rewrite and change as much dialogue as you can while keeping the narrative structure mostly intact. You can do this as many times as you’d like; it will show you the flexibility of dialogue and test your creative capacity for coming up with different ways to have characters say similar things (i.e., develop a dialogue style).

The concept of dialogue, or the dialogic, does not have to apply exclusively to prose or realist texts. Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, is known for his conception of the dialogic, in which works, authors, characters, other authors, other works, paratexts, and extratexts are all in dialogue with one another across different times and places. Thinking about your work in terms of the dialogic opens up a great many possibilities for relational writing that exploits these inevitable connections rather than subsuming them beneath the myth of originality.