Day 16: One-sided conversation

Day sixteen, keep it lean. And by lean we mean cutting all extraneous fluff from a story so it’s stripped down to its nudey bones…

An animated gif of a twerking skeleton. Get it girl.

And for the purposes of this exercise we’re banning everything except dialogue. Not only that but we only want to hear ONE SIDE of a conversation.

Yah. This one’s a challenge, but sometimes the more restrictions you put on a story, the easier it is to write. It’s like if someone told you to write a story about ‘human kindness’ versus a story about a grouchy old rich dude who’s visited by a bunch of ghosts who show him what his life could be like if he wasn’t such a miserly dickhead all the time.

Specifity is good.

Constriction can be helpful.

But don’t just take our word for it — read some examples of dialogue-heavy stories to see how it can be done:

First up: Today Will Be A Quiet Day by Amy Hempel

This is a story almost entirely told through dialogue, but each character is clearly and beautifully crafted through the things they say, the way they say them, and the things they don’t say. Look at the dialogue triangle between the father and two kids – each character speaks to the other two characters in two different ways. Father to son, father to daughter, son to father, brother to sister, daughter to father, sister to brother – six distinct threads of dialogue that interweave and overlap and merge together until you can read their thoughts behind their words and see clearly how they feel about each other. Beauuutiful.

Or how about Haikuziller by Caleb Echterling, a frankly bonkers dialogue-only story about the governor of California’s response to a gigantic Haiku monster attack. A great example of how you really don’t need dialogue tags (s/he said) or setting description or exposition to lead a reader on a right old romp. Look at the difference in tone, speech pattern and word choices of each character, and how the news reporter’s attitude changes over the course of the story. Ridiculous but so well done.

Or these two stories which are technically not dialogue but shhh read them and you’ll see why we’ve included them:

Dear Nnamdi by Tyrese Coleman is a brilliant series of emails that almost read like answerphone messages — a one-sided dialogue with an ex that leads the reader on a lyrical train-of-thought journey through the end of a relationship (content warning: contains racist slurs).

Dear David by Yael van der Wouden is a series of strangely mismatched questions and answers addressed to David Attenborough that reads like two entirely different conversations put together but somehow manages to be touching, funny, and oddly comforting.

Alexis from Schitt's Creek saying "oh my god, ew David!"

Ok. Enough examples. Let’s go.

Remember the rules?

Dialogue only.

One voice.

One perspective.

We can do this.

Set a timer for 20 minutes and try writing a one-sided conversation.

Perhaps it takes place over the phone. Perhaps through a closed door. Perhaps the other person won’t or can’t respond. Perhaps they’re imaginary, a ghost, or a spiritual presence… (Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret…)

Here are some dialoguey ideas to get you started:

  • A character who’s avoiding the subject
  • A character filling the silence because they’re nervous
  • A character who’s trying to intimidate/persuade the other person
  • A character with bad news to share
  • A character who’s infatuated with the other person
  • A character bitching about a third person

Is your character saying what they really mean? And what clever subtext can be found in what they’re NOT saying?

A gif of David from Schitt's Creek saying "what are you trying to say?"

20 minutes. Go. Then absoLUTEly read it aloud like a monologue and come share it on the forum.

Happy talking/writing!

Useful Stuff & Things

If you’re enjoying the talky side of things or want to improve your dialogue skills, check out our blog, Overheard Voices

Another verrrrry interesting way to explore character is to Play With Status – as seen in this unit from Writing Short Fiction – a technique steeped in drama and conflict that works particularly well with a bit of dialogue…

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