On Wednesday I led a dialogue exercise for the Arlington Writers Group.
Evidently I’m an expert on dialogue because I copy down everything I hear in coffee shops, change the genders, and claim it as my own.
Here’s how the exercise went (with a couple of edits), and a few tips at the end for using it in your own writing group.
What you need:
- Have everyone take 3 index cards.
- On the first card, write a character – any character will do. Include enough info to understand his or her general motivations.
- On the second card, write another character. It doesn’t have to relate at all to the first.
- On the third card, write a situation for 2 characters – ideally a problem to solve (fixing a tire), or an action to complete (climbing a mountain).
- Have everyone put their cards into a “characters” pile and a “situations” pile. Shuffle them, and serve the cards back: everyone gets 2 characters, 1 situation.
- Write a scene based on the cards you’re given, using ONLY dialogue. No setup, no description. Nothing but the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.
- Read the scenes out loud and have the rest of the group guess at your characters.
In this exercise, the characters should be obvious. Their voices should sound different from each other, and the dialogue should suggest their motivations without ever speaking them outright.
After the readings, discuss what was challenging about the exercise. If there are fiction writers in the group, how can it relate to writing dialogue in fiction? What tools do fiction writers have vs. playwrights? What can writers of either genre learn from the other?
If you have time, try the same exercise for three characters. Every character you add will make the exercise more challenging.
A few tips:
Do have everyone read.
Not everyone read in our group – a lot of people got shy or worried about doing the voices well. Some of them felt their scenes were boring. But that’s sort of the point. The exercise should challenge you to hear the moments in the dialogue that lag and learn how to fix them. And knowing you’ll have to read at the end will hopefully help everyone take their work more seriously.
Do decide beforehand if you want to focus on dramatic work.
The exercise lends itself to comedy because it’s so random and surreal. For example, we had a hedgehog with a mood disorder at a Lamaze class. If you want to practice realistic, dramatic dialogue, let people know that at the beginning so they choose characters and situations accordingly.
Don’t worry about reading with voices, especially if it’s a fiction writing group.
You won’t have someone doing voices when people read your novel alone in the living room, so it’s OK if you can’t perfect your pirate voice or French accent. The group should be able to discern the characters regardless.
Do keep the cards.
If you can, take some of the cards with you and randomize them for your own use at home. It’s a good way to break the ice when you’re staring at a blank page.
Dialogue is one of the most important skills for any writer to master. I hope you try this and find it helpful!
(Photo by Edmondo Dantes)