It was my turn to select an exercise for writing group this week. Being incredibly busy at work and opting for shortcuts wherever legitimately possible, I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful Steering the Craft once again and found a nice short exercise. Too busy even to retype it, I simply took screenshots of pages 97 and 98 on my tablet and emailed those to my group. The gist of the exercise was to write a page or two of pure dialogue in a way that tells a story and presents two characters.
Write like a play, with A and B as the characters’ names. No stage directions. No description of the characters. Nothing but what A says and what B says. Everything the reader knows about who they are, where they are, and what’s going on comes through what they say.
That’s basically it. Le Guin also offers some topic suggestions, as it’s kind of hard to create dialogue in a vacuum. Her suggestions didn’t really grab me, though (“put two people into some kind of crisis situation: the car just ran out of gas; the spaceship is about to crash; the doctor has just realized that the old man she’s treating for a heart attack is her father”), so I had a difficult time getting started.
What helped was thinking about the exercise as an improv assignment. Not that I actually know much about improv other than you’re supposed to say “yes” and build on whatever your co-performers say in order to create a sketch out of thin air. I started with a question: “What’s wrong?” And the rest kind of flowed from there. Although my dialogue exercise doesn’t develop enough to make a story or even wrap up with a clever punchline of sorts, I thought I’d share it anyway.
So first, my usual disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Blah, blah, etc.
And now, here is my exercise. It’s really LONG in terms of how much space it takes up running down the page, but individual “lines” are pretty brief.
A: What’s wrong?
B: What makes you think anything’s wrong?
A: You’re playing with your food.
B: I always eat this way.
A: No you don’t. Separating your peas from the potatoes? Tearing your bread into tiny pieces before you butter it?
B: That’s good manners.
A: The peas and potatoes?
B: No, the bread. I read that once.
A: Stop changing the subject. What’s wrong?
B: I didn’t like what you said back there.
B: At the theater.
A: What did I—? Oh, you mean about the coat?
B: You know how I feel about that.
A: I was joking!
B: The bully’s defense.
A: Oh, I see. This is my fault.
B: If the shoe fits.
A: Don’t lecture me, B.
B: Don’t ask what’s wrong then.
A: You always do this.
B: So do you. We’ve had this conversation so many times that I can tell you exactly what you’re about to say next.
A: I doubt it.
B: “Have you seen Aunt Edna yet?”
A: Do you really think so little of me?
B: But I was right, wasn’t I?
A: I’m leaving.
B: It always comes back to Aunt Edna. And this is how the conversation always ends, too. With you leaving. Like you’re the aggrieved party.
A: And you’re so innocent? I saw you, don’t forget. I know what you are.
B: No, you don’t. You don’t even know what you saw.
A: You were in her room, wearing her clothes. Trying on her shoes. Dripping with pearls.
B: Meaning . . . ?
A: Did she know you were there?
B: Of course not!
B: How could she know? She was in the hospital.
A: The nuthouse.
B: The sanitorium.
A: Whatever. The point is, she didn’t know. You shouldn’t have been there.
B: Neither should you. Which is what this really comes down to, isn’t it? I did nothing more than you were about to, except I got there first. Don’t act all high and mighty with me, sister. You had no reason to be upstairs.
A: Well, it doesn’t matter now anyway.
B: No, it doesn’t.
A: She’s going to do what she wants.
B: Yes, she is.
A: I suppose we’ll have to accept it.
B: Already have.
A: You know, you can be an insufferable pain in the—
B: Weren’t you leaving?
A: Is that what you want?
B: Actually, I wish you’d stay. Truly. Can’t we put all this behind us?
B: The inheritance. The family drama. We always hated watching our parents and the relatives snipe at each other. Aren’t we better than that?
A: I have no idea, honestly.
B: It’s exhausting.
A: Then why do you keep on with it?
B: Why do you?
A: I need the money. You don’t.
B: Neither do you.
A: That’s where you’re wrong. Frank’s business has been losing money for years.
B: Really? You’d never know from the way he . . . never mind. I’m sorry to hear it.
A: Well, don’t be. I’ve had time to reconcile myself. At least now you understand.
B: I suppose. But A? I wouldn’t count on Aunt Edna’s money.
A: Why? What do you know?
B: Only that the sanitorium is expensive. And she seems over-fond of her attendants. Plus, I understand she had a meeting with her attorney last week.
B: So I don’t think we should expect anything from her.
A: Oh, my God.
B: I’m so sorry.
A: Now what am I supposed to do?
B: We have to find a way to protect you.
A: From bankruptcy? Frank says—
B From Frank.
A: I . . . beg your pardon?
B: You heard me.
A: How dare you.
B: You have to get away from him. We both know the business isn’t his only problem. He’s not been good to you in other ways, either.
A: Yes, he has. Stop looking at me like that. He has!
B: Come on, A. Let’s have some truth between us at least.
A: Look, I don’t want your pity. I don’t need it! And now I really am leaving. No, B, take your time. Finish your neatly arranged peas and potatoes. Enjoy those individually-buttered tatters of bread. I’ll take care of the bill on my way out.