Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Say It

Yesterday was the next-to-last class in my Writing Children's Books winter term course. As we finished the critiques of the middle-grade novel chapters I realized that most of my students needed a workshop on dialogue. So I created this exercise on the spot. I think it worked out pretty well.

On the board I wrote the following bare bones conversational exchange:

“How are you?” John asked.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John said.
“What’s the matter?” Mary asked.
“It’s my mom,” John said.
“What about her?” Mary asked.
“I think she’s sick,” John said.
“Oh, no,” Mary said.

It was not improved by substituting fancier speech verbs:

“How are you?” John inquired.
“I’m fine,” Mary responded. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John muttered.
“What’s the matter?” Mary interrogated.
“It’s my mom,” John confessed.
“What about her?” Mary interviewed.
“I think she’s sick,” John whispered.
“Oh, no,” Mary exclaimed.

Nor by modifying each speech verb with adverbs:

“How are you?” John asked politely.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John said nervously.
“What’s the matter?” Mary asked curiously.
“It’s my mom,” John said sadly.
“What about her?” Mary asked persistently.
“I think she’s sick,” John said softly.
“Oh, no,” Mary said sympathetically.

Nor by getting rid of most of the speech verbs altogether, though this is definitely less annoying:

“How are you?” John asked.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay."
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s my mom.”
“What about her?”
“I think she’s sick.”
“Oh, no.”

Instead, what worked to improve this stretch of dialogue was situating John and Mary in a setting and interspersing their bits of speech with body language, action, brief descriptions, and thoughts from our viewpoint character (it could be John or Mary: we picked John). The students decided to make our characters sixteen-year-olds. Where might teenagers find themselves? At the mall. This is the revised dialogue we wrote together:

“How are you?” John asked Mary, as they were approaching the Gap.

“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”

“Just okay." John lowered his eyes, hoping that the other shoppers couldn't hear. A kid from school walked by talking on his cellphone.

“What’s the matter?” Mary leaned in closer.

John hesitated. Then he made himself say it. “It’s my mom."

“What about her?”

“I think she’s sick." The kid from school seemed to be looking right at him, but John didn't care any more.

“Oh, no." Mary's eyes filled with tears.

Great. Now I've made her cry.

That's better, isn't it?


  1. What a great exercise! Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a wonderful writing exercise! I love it.