The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Don’t—”

“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Sexually?”

From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?

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10 thoughts on “The Random Dialogue Exercise

  1. Thanks for another great idea, Jim.

    I’m working on developing an antagonist for my current WIP, I’ll try this idea in his voice journal to look for some unpredictable facets to his personality.

    And your voice journal for developing characters is my favorite writing exercise.

  2. I love stuff like this. It really does help me, the writer, entertain other possibilities. I will try your technique. Have you tried mine? When I get stuck on a page/scene and find it dull or I don’t know where to go next, I turn to a random number generator website. I type in a range of 1-290. and “spin.” When I get a number, I select a novel off my shelf and turn to that page. Then I either put in another number, range 1-250, and get a number which will represent a word on the page. If I don’t feel like counting, I just close my eyes and put my finger somewhere on the page (you know, like pin the tail on the donkey). Then I choose the closest interesting word and work that into the scene where I was stuck. I love it when the word has nothing to do with my topic so that I have to dig deep in order to use it and rework the paragraph around it.

    • That’s terrific, Nancy. I can see that working wonders. I do the same thing with the dictionary. If I’m stuck, or I just want to be creative, I open the dictionary at random and put my finger on a word. It opens up little doorways in the mind, and that’s the point.

  3. I really liked the Random Dialogue Exercise. Thank you for sharing it and how about more exercises? Definitely gets the old brain moving in other directions.
    Thanks again.

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