Holiday Writing Workout ~ Don’t Say It With Dialogue

Oh my, I now have a complete author crush on John Green. Any writer puts video of mating goats on his blog and whose fans are “nerdfighters” and booktour is called the “Tour de Nerdfighting” is up there in my world. As well, he has a non-profit giving and lending org called The Foundation to Fight World Suck.

I’ve always had a fondness for smart funny guys. And I used to be into anagramming, like the protag from An Abundance of Katherines, although I did it on paper, not in my head. I’m no prodigy (Mod Pig Irony).

Not only is Green super at creating messy characters, he is also fantastic at dialogue. Funny, witty, real dialogue.

One of my favourite scenes in Abundance of Katherines reminded me of a writing exercise I used to do that involves only writing in dialogue.

In the scene the protag (Colin) and his new friend (a girl) end up in a pitch black cave together. They can’t even see their hands in front of their faces. The scene is written ENTIRELY in dialogue. No description. Not even any dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she said). Even their silences are written as dialogue (“. . .”). It’s funny, it’s tender, it brings that fabulous teenage tension – you know, when you might like someone new but aren’t sure or don’t know if it’s a good idea.

Oh, yeah, and there’s a jar of moonshine in the cave.

“Do you want to drink it? The moonshine?”
“I never really drank before.”
“Color me surprised.”
“Also, moonshine can make you blind and what I’ve seen of blindness so far hasn’t really impressed me.”
“Yeah that would suck for you if you couldn’t read anymore. But how often are you going to find yourself in a cave with moonshine? Live a little.”
“Says the girl who never wants to leave her hometown.”
“Oh, burn. Okay I got the bottle. Talk to me and I’ll come over to your voice.”
“Um, hello my name is Colin Singleton and it’s very dark and so you should come over here to my voice except the acoustics in this place are really w– oh, that’s me. That’s my knee.”
“Ladies first.”
“All right . . . sweet holy shitstickers, it tastes like you’re washing down a bite of corn with a pint of lighter fluid.”
“Did it make you go blind?”
“I have absolutely no idea. Okay, your turn.”
“AkhhhhhhEchhhAhhh.Kahhh. Ehhhh. Wow. Wow. Man. It’s like French-kissing a dragon.”
“That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said, Colin Singleton.”
“I used to be funnier. I kinda lost all my confidence.”
“. . .”
“. . .”

The conversation goes on and the cool, clever, funny exteriors give way a little and they reveal some things about themselves to each other and a few more awkward moments. But before long they’re back to cool, clever, and funny. Why?

There is something underneath good dialogue called subtext. Much of Colin’s clever wit hides what’s really going on for him. If you were to rewrite this entirely “on the nose” as they say, it would look more like:

“Hi, it’s dark. I kinda like you and you kinda make me nervous. Let’s have a drink.”
“You make me nervous, too. You’re quirky and cute, but I’m afraid of girls because they always dump me and break my heart. Wow, that’s a strong drink.”


This is the first assignment this week that it’s important to do in its entirety. Also, please HAND write this exercise, just like the others.

Pick a scene between 2 characters that either:
1) You’ve been avoiding
2) Is a confrontation that needs to happen
3) Is a vital turning point in the story
4) In which one character reads flat, undeveloped, and uninteresting.

Set your timer for 5 minutes. Start at the top of the page with the following startline: Character A doesn’t want Character B to know . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 5 more minutes. Start with the following line: Character B doesn’t want Character A to know . . .

NOW, set your timer for 10 – 15 minutes and write a “scene” entirely in dialogue (no descriptions, no actions, not even any tags). Remember the things your characters don’t want each other to know? Well, have each character do whatever they can NOT to let the other character know this thing. Start with Character A or B asking “What are you doing?”

People don’t talk on the nose. They question, cajole, demand, evade, react, defend, etc, etc. Think TACTICAL maneuvers.

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.


  1. Anita Marie
    Dec 30, 2011

    This looks like fun,think I’ll give it a whirl!

  2. Anita! Hi! Happy Holidays.

    This is SUCH a good exercise you’ll be surprised. It’s something I usually to in a classroom situation as it’s harder to lead the exercise here. But do try it.

  3. Julie
    Dec 31, 2011

    I’ve nominated you for a Liebster award, because I had to share you

  4. Christina Kit.
    Jan 6, 2012

    John Green is a GENIUS! I love him.

    thanks for the exercise.

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