Dialogue Fun

There’s something I used to do when I found myself lacking in inspiration, and since these past couple of weeks have seen my muse annoyingly silent, I’ve dragged it back out into the light of day. It’s a pretty fun exercise, and helps get my imagination going.

I got the idea years ago, back when I was still in an arts high school as a drama major. Reading plays and interpreting dialogue was a big part of the work I did, and I always found it fascinating that a stretch of dialogue can be so crazily altered when presented by different directors and actors. It’s the kind of thing that makes it possible to see two productions of one script and feel like they were entirely different plays. As it turns out, applying this idea to writing is hella fun.

Here’s how it works. Come up with a bit of dialogue with no tags, between however many people you wish, though two is a solid number that’s easy to keep track of. Keep it simple, ambiguous, and trite. Alternatively, you can even pull something from a play, though it tends to work better (at least with me) if you don’t have any preconceived ideas about it.

Here’s an example:

A: Ready?
B: It’s cold outside.
A: Did you get everything?
B: I think so. I couldn’t find my watch.
A: Taxi’s waiting.
B: Right.
A: Come on.

Next, you fill in the blanks. Another thing I love about this exercise is that it can help you focus on subtext. What are the characters really saying? Their words seem totally innocuous, but once you apply them to a relationship of brothers, or lovers, or colleagues, and once you build a scene around them, they begin to mean things other than small talk. You can use them to give away any range of emotions.

Here’s my first interpretation:

He strode to the door.

“Ready?” he said, opening it wide. His usually expressive face was blank.

She picked up her bag and hefted it onto her shoulder. He didn’t try helping her. It hurt more than it should have. She kept her eyes down and crossed the living room as a crisp wind blew through the apartment. “It’s cold outside,” she muttered, trying to focus on anything else. She lingered at the edge of the foyer, pretending to adjust her glove. She couldn’t look at his face.

“Did you get everything?”

There was a note of impatience in his voice and she knew she couldn’t stall for much longer.

“I think so,” she said, rubbing her bare wrist. “I couldn’t find my watch.”

She stilled as she realized her error. It was his watch. She just always wore it.

“Taxi’s waiting,” he said, and motioned to the door. His shirt sleeve rode up and she saw the glint of a gold buckle on a brown leather strap. A shard of pain lodged itself in her chest and made it hard to breathe. She finally met his eyes. They were hard and unforgiving with resolve, growing colder the longer she stared. She’d never felt so judged.

“Right,” she said, clearing her throat when it came out strangled.

“Come on.”

He motioned again, and as she stepped out she could feel his gaze follow her, colder than the November weather. She walked slowly to the taxi on the road, hesitating at the end of the drive. Just as she turned back to see him one last time, For closure, she told herself, the door slammed shut and denied her. Numbly, she climbed into the taxi.

Here’s my second interpretation:

She grinned. “Ready?” She was practically bouncing up and down with excitement.

He couldn’t resist an answering grin, gathering her up into his arms and kissing her breathless. She laughed and pushed him away, protesting that they’d be late. She picked up her purse from the couch and pranced over to the front hall, ignoring his snort at her actions. She opened the front door and a blast of cool air blew into the room.

He rubbed his bare arms. “It’s cold outside.”

He was hit with a sweater in his face in reply. He rolled his eyes and pulled it on.

“Did you get everything?” she asked, fixing her makeup in the hall mirror, occasionally glancing out the open door.

“I think so. I couldn’t find my watch.”

He caught her smirk before she straightened her face and blinked at him innocently. His eyes were drawn to her hand reapplying lipstick. More specifically, her wrist. She was wearing his watch. He raised an eyebrow in question. She winked in the mirror.

“Taxi’s waiting,” she said.

His lips quirked. “Right.”

Her features softened into a smile as she watched him slip on his shoes. He stepped towards her and let her clean a bit of her lipstick off his face.

“Come on,” she said, taking his hand, and they left the house together.

So there it is; a terrible break up scene, and an intimate moment. Next, you rewrite, using the exact same dialogue, just with different circumstances or relationships, until you’re totally out of ideas, ranging from scenes of happiness, frustration, indifference, playfulness, rage, and so on. They don’t have to be the same characters, either, though that’s a cool twist as well. I limited myself to a lovers kind of relationship, and even influenced myself with the bit about watches, but really, it could be anything. Go wild! There are literally no holds barred. The only rule is, you stick to the dialogue.

Hope you guys enjoyed this, and that you find some use from it. I’d love to read your versions of the above in the comments below!


14 Responses to Dialogue Fun

  1. Alex Feb 11 2013 at 5:00 am #

    Hi there

    That’s a great exercise . Can I ask how it works when you were writing plays? Do you fill in extra pieces of dialogue?



    • Biljana Feb 11 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Actually, I never did it with writing plays; I’d do it through acting or directing. You take bit of dialogue and with your partner you act it out in different ways, trying to find interesting interpretations that still made sense with the context. Basically, we’d change up the motives and actions of our characters and fool around with the subtext of the play. It can be more restricting in acting, obviously, because there are stage directions telling you what props you have and where you go, but if you take a play like Waiting for Godot, a play that I’ve never seen produced a similar way twice, you can turn a nonsense, surrealist scene into something unique to your interpretation while still staying true to the dialogue. Doing this in writing, like in the post above, relies solely on you, where doing it in drama form relies on the other actors and the director as well as on you.

      So to answer your question, I never used this with play writing; just with the actual acting and with creative writing. In terms of play writing, I suppose you can fool around with stage directions, but I don’t know that it works as well because this exercise relies on not changing any of the dialogue.

  2. Meredith Anderson Feb 11 2013 at 10:15 am #

    That is awesome! I definitely think I’m going to try that out. I love writing dialogue so that would be something fun to do if I get stuck at any point. I really liked the scenes you wrote too. I got it in my mind after reading them both that maybe the first scene could have happened at the beginning of their relationship and the second at the end. Which proceeded to make me kind of sad but more impressed than anything.

    Thanks for such a great post and idea!


    • Biljana Feb 11 2013 at 11:59 am #

      You flatter me haha! Yeah, the second scene I did to show how great the contrast in mood and action can be, and then ended up being totally influenced by the first one in terms of the woman wearing the man’s watch. I was thinking about doing something between two spies getting ready for a mission for the second one but then just scrapped it because I was more interested in what I ended up actually writing. I just love how versatile a little bit of simple dialogue can be.

      Glad you enjoyed it! Feel free to write up your own scene of the dialogue here! 😉

  3. Patrick Stahl Feb 11 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    Carla bit down on her lower lip. Her eyes flitted around, to the carpet, to her skirt, up at the man before her. She plucked a comb from her purse and ran it through her hair for the tenth time.
    The man began whistling the Final Jeopardy theme. “Ready?” he asked at last.
    Carla allowed herself to fixate on the man’s umber irises. “It’s cold outside,” she said, more to herself than the man. She trotted over to her coat rack and drew out a cherry red overcoat.
    “Do you have everything?”
    “I think so. I couldn’t find my watch.”
    The man lowered his brows. He glanced over his shoulder and picked up a Rolex from a side table, then pressed it into Carla’s open palm. She smiled at him. “Taxi’s waiting,” he declared.
    “Right.” Carla smoothed her dress.
    The man patted her shoulder and looked her in the eyes. “Come on.”

  4. JQ Trotter Feb 11 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    That’s an interesting exercise, I’ve never thought of doing something like that when I can’t figure out what to do. Sometimes, in early drafts, I’ll just write the dialogue and then fill in the tags and movements and all that later, but it doesn’t have the same results as this. It seems like a fun way to get the muse back. Next time I’m staring at a blank screen, I’ll have to try this.

    • Biljana Feb 11 2013 at 7:08 pm #

      I hope it’s helpful 🙂 It’s most fun for me when I find myself trying to force a scene. I stop myself, take a deep breath, pull out this trick, and the sudden possibilities are exhilarating.

  5. Crystal Schubert Feb 12 2013 at 2:43 am #

    Oh, fun! I love writing exercises like this. Here’s my take–I’m normally more of a first person girl, but this was helpful to try out third a little 🙂

    Kate slipped on her ballet flats and glanced up the stairs. Light crept out from cracks around the bathroom door. Amy wasn’t very prompt, in general, but this was her appointment–not Kate’s. As moral support, Kate decided not to complain like she normally would.

    “Ready?” Kate called toward the closed door.


    Fine. They were definitely going to be late now. Even if they took the interstate. Kate picked at her cuticles. Being late, even for someone else’s appointment, physically hurt her. But there was no being mad at Amy today. She could take as long as she needed. She’d been through enough.

    Kate opened the front door and leaned against the frame. Like a polite, non-judgmental encouragement. Frozen air whooshed into the house and the taxi driver honked his horn for the fourth time.

    Amy finally stood at the top of the stairs, backlit by unflattering bathroom flourescents. Slowly, she descended. Arms shaking. Every step seemed painful. When she reached the bottom, she sniffed and turned around. Headed back upstairs. “It’s cold outside.”

    Before Amy could get back to her bedroom and back into hibernation, Kate ran up after her and held her by the shoulders. Spun her around gently. “Did you get everything?”

    “I think so. I couldn’t find my watch.” Amy stared at the floor, but she didn’t fight Kate’s guiding arm. She nuzzled against her friend, bottom lip quivering.

    Kate hugged her closer. There had to be something supportive she could say, but she didn’t know what it was. This wasn’t your fault. I hate that this happened to you. I’m sorry I left the party so early. The protocol for this situation was not in the Best Friend Bible. Amy looked up at Kate with red-rimmed eyes and last night’s streaked mascara and a rock sunk in Kate’s chest, but the driver honked again. “Taxi’s waiting,” Kate said solemnly.

    That was probably not the perfect best friend response.

    “Right.” Amy shrugged Kate away and fumbled with the buttons on her long cardigan. She must’ve left her coat at the party.

    Kate took off her own heavy down coat and wrapped it around Amy as they navigated the icy front steps. She might not be able to say the right things or go back in time and neglect her curfew, but she could be here. Beside Amy the whole time. She clasped her friend’s hand. “Come on.”

    • Biljana Feb 12 2013 at 5:32 am #

      Brilliant!! I love that she tries to go back upstairs with “It’s cold outside.” Great handle on the subject matter, too. Very believable. Looks like you have a pretty good grasp of third person to me!

  6. Alexa Y. Feb 25 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    I LOVE THIS. I’ve always found it fascinating how the context of a situation can change dialogue – and your exercise illustrates that perfectly. Can’t wait to whip this out on a day when I’m feeling a bit stuck on my writing!

  7. Faye Mar 3 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Wow. This is a great exercise! I look forward to trying it out myself. Thank you so much for posting this <3

    Also, your writing? I am inspired!


    • Biljana Mar 8 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      Too kind 😀 Have fun with it!

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