A two-person dialogue

[handout from a beginning fiction class]

Write a conversation between two characters that goes on for about two pages. They can be anyone you want them to be; this conversation may be related to a story idea that you are already working on, or not, as you please.

This dialogue should take place within a world of the senses. It happens somewhere, surrounded by objects, sights, sounds, smells; the reader may be let in on the interior, unspoken monologue of one character or of both, happening in a counterpoint to the spoken dialogue. The characters may do physically expressive things, use body language instead of speech. Whatever needs to happen – let it happen.

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Please use the stories we’ve read, or any story that has dialogue you like, as a source of guidance, or as models to imitate. As I’ve said before, when you see a move you like, steal it. Here’s an example of what I mean by a move, from “Hills Like White Elephants”:

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

The move I’m thinking of comes when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The two of them are having their ongoing conflict, which they both refuse to discuss explicitly. She deliberately prods him by saying “you wouldn’t have,” and he responds with his basically childish comeback which serves notice that if she wants to be that way about it, he will too. Then the move: she looks at the curtain. Why? I think she makes a decision not to keep bickering; she looks for something to use as a deliberate change of subject, and there’s the bead curtain.

Looking at the curtain is not random (as I read it); that small physical gesture is a statement, of sorts, about what’s going on inside her. The move defined in one sentence might be: the character’s interaction with the physical world has meaning in the ongoing dialogue.

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How to make the dialogue go forward: be aware of how these two characters each have their own agenda, different from each other, perhaps in conflict with each other. They don’t have to be having an argument, but in some way they need to be on different wavelengths. They don’t understand each other fully, they want different things out of the conversation, they are preoccupied with their own problem and aren’t really listening to each other, etc., etc. An example would be a couple having a conversation in which she wants to break up with him (but can’t quite get the words out) and he knows that, but is desperate to get her to stay.

When people communicate perfectly, understand each other fully, agree on what must be done – conversation naturally ends. It is the imperfect understanding, the unfinished communication, the disagreement, the mismatch, the unfulfilled wish that keeps a dialogue going.

While you’re writing what the characters do say, be aware of what they don’t say, but are thinking and feeling. Again, “Hills Like White Elephants” is a perfect example. When you know both the spoken words and the unspoken, you really understand what’s going on between the characters.

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You can download this as a Word document here: 2-person dialogue assg.

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