That Dialogue Assignment

By Rebecca Makkai

Featured Image: la Orana Maria (Hail Mary) by Paul Gauguin, 1891

I first got The Assignment in a college playwriting class. You might have gotten it in high school, or picked it up from a writing exercise book (somewhere between Keep a Dream Journal and What Color Is Your Character’s Toothbrush?): Eavesdrop on strangers, and write down everything they say. The idea is that this will help you write better dialogue, more realistic dialogue. Because realistic must equal better.

To be honest, I fudged the college assignment somewhat. I listened in on two campus maintenance workers, thinking they’d say hilarious and off-color things. Mostly, they grunted about paneling. I cherry-picked my hour of listening for the best phrases, crunching them together into what sounded like three minutes of witty banter, adding a few lines of my own. I did this partly to make my classmates laugh (I knew we’d be reading this aloud the next day) but also because I sensed that there was something deeply unsatisfying about actual dialogue—uninspired, disorganized, mundane dialogue.

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