There’s something I used to do when I found myself lacking in inspiration, and since these past couple of weeks have seen my muse annoyingly silent, I’ve dragged it back out into the light of day. It’s a pretty fun exercise, and helps get my imagination going.
I got the idea years ago, back when I was still in an arts high school as a drama major. Reading plays and interpreting dialogue was a big part of the work I did, and I always found it fascinating that a stretch of dialogue can be so crazily altered when presented by different directors and actors. It’s the kind of thing that makes it possible to see two productions of one script and feel like they were entirely different plays. As it turns out, applying this idea to writing is hella fun.
Here’s how it works. Come up with a bit of dialogue with no tags, between however many people you wish, though two is a solid number that’s easy to keep track of. Keep it simple, ambiguous, and trite. Alternatively, you can even pull something from a play, though it tends to work better (at least with me) if you don’t have any preconceived ideas about it.
Here’s an example:
A: Ready? B: It’s cold outside. A: Did you get everything? B: I think so. I couldn’t find my watch. A: Taxi’s waiting. B: Right. A: Come on.
Next, you fill in the blanks. Another thing I love about this exercise is that it can help you focus on subtext. What are the characters really saying? Their words seem totally innocuous, but once you apply them to a relationship of brothers, or lovers, or colleagues, and once you build a scene around them, they begin to mean things other than small talk. You can use them to give away any range of emotions.
Here’s my first interpretation:
He strode to the door.
“Ready?” he said, opening it wide. His usually expressive face was blank.
She picked up her bag and hefted it onto her shoulder. He didn’t try helping her. It hurt more than it should have. She kept her eyes down and crossed the living room as a crisp wind blew through the apartment. “It’s cold outside,” she muttered, trying to focus on anything else. She lingered at the edge of the foyer, pretending to adjust her glove. She couldn’t look at his face.
“Did you get everything?”
There was a note of impatience in his voice and she knew she couldn’t stall for much longer.
“I think so,” she said, rubbing her bare wrist. “I couldn’t find my watch.”
She stilled as she realized her error. It was his watch. She just always wore it.
“Taxi’s waiting,” he said, and motioned to the door. His shirt sleeve rode up and she saw the glint of a gold buckle on a brown leather strap. A shard of pain lodged itself in her chest and made it hard to breathe. She finally met his eyes. They were hard and unforgiving with resolve, growing colder the longer she stared. She’d never felt so judged.
“Right,” she said, clearing her throat when it came out strangled.
He motioned again, and as she stepped out she could feel his gaze follow her, colder than the November weather. She walked slowly to the taxi on the road, hesitating at the end of the drive. Just as she turned back to see him one last time, For closure, she told herself, the door slammed shut and denied her. Numbly, she climbed into the taxi.
Here's my second interpretation:
She grinned. “Ready?” She was practically bouncing up and down with excitement.
He couldn’t resist an answering grin, gathering her up into his arms and kissing her breathless. She laughed and pushed him away, protesting that they’d be late. She picked up her purse from the couch and pranced over to the front hall, ignoring his snort at her actions. She opened the front door and a blast of cool air blew into the room.
He rubbed his bare arms. “It’s cold outside.”
He was hit with a sweater in his face in reply. He rolled his eyes and pulled it on.
“Did you get everything?” she asked, fixing her makeup in the hall mirror, occasionally glancing out the open door.
“I think so. I couldn’t find my watch.”
He caught her smirk before she straightened her face and blinked at him innocently. His eyes were drawn to her hand reapplying lipstick. More specifically, her wrist. She was wearing his watch. He raised an eyebrow in question. She winked in the mirror.
“Taxi’s waiting,” she said.
His lips quirked. “Right.”
Her features softened into a smile as she watched him slip on his shoes. He stepped towards her and let her clean a bit of her lipstick off his face.
“Come on,” she said, taking his hand, and they left the house together.
So there it is; a terrible break up scene, and an intimate moment. Next, you rewrite, using the exact same dialogue, just with different circumstances or relationships, until you’re totally out of ideas, ranging from scenes of happiness, frustration, indifference, playfulness, rage, and so on. They don't have to be the same characters, either, though that's a cool twist as well. I limited myself to a lovers kind of relationship, and even influenced myself with the bit about watches, but really, it could be anything. Go wild! There are literally no holds barred. The only rule is, you stick to the dialogue.
Hope you guys enjoyed this, and that you find some use from it. I’d love to read your versions of the above in the comments below!