Beating around the Bush: restraint in dialogue 1 Comment

Beating around the Bush: restraint in dialogue

Writing realistic dialogue in prose is enough of a challenge in itself. Writing dialogue that punches your reader right in the feels is even more difficult. Today’s Friday Writing Exercise is about giving that a red-hot go.

Dialogue inherently allows you to explain; it gives you an excuse to do the “tell” part of “show don’t tell”. This isn’t in itself a bad quality, but it can mean that dialogue can become a crutch. There’s the famous ol’ literary trope “As You Know, Bob,” wherein characters tell each other things they already know in order to inform the reader:

“Bob, you’re my brother — and we grew up together, twin princes, in this strange world ruled by literate dragons…”

 “Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world — a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness…” (Yes, thank you, Giles. “Yadda yadda yadda.”)

So! For this exercise, pick a potentially melodramatic situation, e.g. a breakup or breaking the news of a death. For a specific scenario: a young girl must reveal an unexpected pregnancy over the phone to her young boyfriend. Her parents are home, of course, so subtly is key. Your goal: whatever the scenario, it must be discussed over the phone. Write only one side of the phone dialogue (and only the dialogue — avoid other description), and never name the crisis (e.g. breakup, pregnancy, or death) outright. Talk around the issues — but make that sure the elephant in the room becomes clear to the reader.

You’ll want to spend some time thinking about who your two characters are and how they might react to this news (especially without explicitly revealing it). Start with one side of the phone conversation, and then write the other.


Zenobia Frost (24) is a Brisbane-based poet and critic. She is Cordite’s assistant editor and a poetry editor with Voiceworks Magazine.


  • http://Website Saba

    What an interesting challenge! :) I totally hate clunky dialogue – especially in fantasy novels where half the words are made up and all the names are weird and it’s all making my brain hurt. (One word – Eragon.) And usually 70% of the time all of that infodump is completely useless to the plot.

    Anyway, I decided to give the challenge a go. :)

    “It’s a code red. What do you mean, ‘what do you mean code red’? Don’t even start – just shut up for a second! I got a test , okay. No, I didn’t tell Dad, are you kidding? Nat gave it to me. Her cousin works at a pharmacy and everyone knows she’s a giant slut so she has boxes of them lying around her house – no, not Nat, her cousin. God, are you even listening to me? What do mean, you have a maths test? Since when do you give a shit about shit like that? I took the test, okay? I took the test and it said… it said yes. And I’ve made up my mind, I have to get rid of it. What are you – don’t you dare hang up on me. I need you, okay? Just stop. Listen. I need you. I can’t… I can’t handle this shit alone, Davey-baby. You gotta help me out. Don’t call you Davey-baby? Are you serious? That’s what you’re focusing on? It was your idea that landed us in this mess. ‘It’s my birthday Claire-bear, it’s just one time, I’ll pull out I swear’ – and now it’s all gone to shit – don’t you dare hang up on me you jerk -“

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