This is a chapter from the forthcoming ebook, C.M. Mayo on Creative Writing (Dancing Chiva Literary Arts), a selection of posts from this blog. It will be free to my writing workshop participants and all subscribers to my newsletter.
---> UPDATE May 2012: get your free copy of this book here. <---
One of the most powerfully vivid ways to show character, relationship, conflict and/or mood is through the use of dialogue. Herewith, one dozen five minute exercises. Use an egg-timer if you must.
#1. Sprinkle in ze French
An American who was resident in Paris for many years gives a tour of the local art museum to some friends who are mighty impressed (but do they admit it?). Write the scene with dialogue.
#2. Echoing in Dialogue
From Henry James's novel The Portrait of a Lady, here's an example of "echoing" in dialogue:
"She has offered to take her-- she's dying to have Isabel go. But what I want her to do when she gets her there is give her all the advantages. I'm sure all we've got to do," said Mrs. Ludlow, "is to give her a chance."
"A chance for what?"
"A chance to develop."
"Oh Moses!" Edmund Ludlow exclaimed. "I hope she isn't going to develop any more!"
In this example, echoing works well to show the two characters's easy going affection for one another. So, try writing a similar scene with echoing in the dialogue. If you need a prompt: a boss and his/ her ingratiating subordinate planning the new furniture arrangements for the office.
#3. Larry & Saul Bake a Cake
Larry and Saul are elderly brothers. Larry is jealous of Saul. Saul thinks Larry is full of himself. They are in Larry's kitchen making a cake. Write the scene with dialogue.
#4. The Control Freak, the Liar & the Narcissist
Three characters, all members of the same family, sit down to dinner. Show by the things they say to one another that one is a control freak, one a liar, and one a narcissist.
#5. Good Cat, Bad Cat
In a pet store: he wants a cat; she does not. Write 5 lines he could say; then, write 5 lines she could say. Briefly describe the cat in question. If you have time, write the scene.
#6. So Terrible. So Awful.
I was in the women's locker room at my health club when I overheard this scrap of dialogue:
A: "Therapists, what they charge--"
B: "Horrible, that's why I quit."
A: "So terrible."
B: "So awful."
I love the shape of this, the way the women echo the sounds and rhythms of each other's words. Notice the rhyme of "horrible" and then "terrible"; the repetition of "So" ("So terrible; "So awful.")
Another interesting aspect is B's interruption of A.
Here's the exercise: take this dialogue; add some names, descriptions, gestures, etc., and flesh out the scene. You might change "therapists" to "dentists" or, say, "contractors" or "piano teachers"--what have you.
#7. "Three Jackets, Three Men & a Joke"
Describe three jackets. Describe the three men who are wearing them. One man tells a joke. How do the other two react?
#8. "When in Rome"
Do as the Romans do: speak Italian. Have your characters, who are arguing about something (whatever you like) use some or all of the following words and phrases:
Dove? (Where?) Buona notte (Good night) Ha un gelato? (Have you any ice-cream?) una crema de barba (shaving cream) E compreso il servizio? (Is service included?) E sulla strada sbagliata (You're on the wrong road)
#9. Class Envy
Your character hates rich people. Give him 3-4 lines of really nasty dialogue. Then, in two sentences or less, identify the specific source of his feelings.
One of the fun things about writing fiction is that you can assume the voice of characters who would do and say all sorts of naughty, slobby things. Here's the exercise: two characters (give them names and a little description) are sitting on a back porch drinking beer. They are arguing over which is the better sports team, and a good portion of their vocabulary consists of swear words. Write the scene with dialogue.
#11. Wedding Dress Dialogue
Mother and daughter are in a changing room, before a floor-length mirror, arguing over one more wedding dress. The mother is thrilled about this wedding; the daughter is tempted to call the wedding off-- but show don't tell. That is, do not have the characters state their feelings, but show them through tone, gesture and indirect comments.Write the scene with dialogue.
Cindy, a highly educated, experienced, and competent professional, peppers her conversations with, "I'm sorry" (and then she wonders why she's not been promoted). Sketch a few scenes for Cindy with dialogue.
Help yourself to these and other exercises on dialogue, plotting, beginnings, use of imagery, specificity, synesthesia, and much more at “Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More 5 Minute Writing Exercises.”