“Contentless Dialogue;” A Writing Exercise by Daryl Gregory

“Contentless Dialogue” is a challenging and eye-opening writing exercise that writer Daryl Gregory gave us at his one-day writing workshop last Saturday. The workshop was sponsored by Locus Science Fiction Foundation (and magazine) and held at their editorial offices. It was the first one, and I hope they do more.

Some of us, and by “us” I mean “me,” rely heavily on dialogue to provide information. It’s tough to do that in a naturalistic way and the risk of dropping into clunky expository speechifying is high. Gregory pointed out that physical description, physical responses and action can deliver as much information, and create as much tension, as the spoken words in a scene with dialogue. Then we put that theory to the test with the exercise.

(By the way, if you haven’t read anything by Daryl Gregory, you are missing out. I recommend his near-future thriller Afterparty, his novella We Are All Completely Fine and his debut novel Pandemonium.)

Gregory gave us a page, about twenty lines, of bland dialogue between Character A and Character B. When I say “perfectly bland,” I mean:

  • Hi.
  • Hello.
  • How are you?
  • Okay I guess.
  • Do you know what time it is?
  • No.

And so on. Seriously. Farther down, one or two questions with meaning emerge, but they are neutral.

Then we were given seven scenarios. Each one described a relationship between A and B, and noted a recent event. These included:

  • Character A is a teenager, coming down for breakfast. Character B is A’s parent, fixing breakfast. (I think that’s pretty tense right there.)
  • Character A and Character B are room-mates, each seriously attracted to the same third party, and neither one is willing to step back for the other.
  • Character A and B are siblings. Character A has just been released from a locked ward after a suicide attempt, and Character B has just tracked them down at a bus depot.

Then we were to write a scene that would allow the readers to intuit which scenario we had chosen, using only the lines of dialogue we had been given for speech between the characters. We were prohibited from any interior monologues or direct dialogue, (“He loves me, dammit!” or “Why are you holding that butcher knife, Sammy?” were out of the question) that would reveal the scenario. We could however use physical reactions and action, and description of the setting, to reveal clues. And we could use close third person, we just couldn’t reveal the scenario from that character’s POV.

A couple of things make this work as an exercise. One is that the pool of readers (the class) have the range of choices already. This also worked because Gregory gave us half an hour to work on it. Too often writing exercises are so time-limited that it’s hard to get anything meaningful done.

This exercise is really hard, and really, really good.

It reminded me to think about physical responses, and pacing, and how glances, tones of voice, and dialogue emphasis — use of italics — can change the meaning of an otherwise neutral line.

In my next post I will include my exercise. Since I didn’t include the scenario I chose in the list above, you probably won’t be able to figure out what’s going on. Maybe we’ll see.




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