An illustration of two people in a kitchen standing in front of an open dishwater

When I’m teaching dialogue in the early weeks of Fiction Writing 1, I usually give students an exercise where I ask them to eavesdrop on a conversation: in Val, in their suites or common rooms, on buses or in coffee shops. They then convert what they heard into a dialogue. I’m asking them to think about the differences between speech and dialogue—how to render the raw material of speech into something a little denser, more crafted, more intentional.

This year I felt I couldn’t give that assignment, because during COVID we can’t spend much time in public spaces, and we rarely get close enough to multiple people we’re not directly talking to. The students who are living on campus don’t congregate in Val or take buses to the other colleges. For better and for worse, we encounter much less frequently the noise of conversation not meant for us.

So I came up with this alternative assignment, whose focus would be another element I wanted students to learn: having two characters discuss something emotional but keeping that thing subtextual, discussing it implicitly through discussing something commonplace (although anyone who’s been supervised loading the dishwasher by a loved one knows that the situation is rife with potential tension). I enjoyed writing it a lot; maybe you can guess whether I identify with James or with Ella. Here is the assignment and one response to it.


Frank is the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English. Sass is a prospective English and American studies major from Nashville.


Assignment: Dialog Exercise

Rules and Tips

Do not use the words uh or um.

Do not use ellipses.

Do not use adverbs in your dialogue tags (e.g., “He said angrily”). Use either a better tag or an action to show how your character is feeling. You can scatter in actions!

James and Ella are two students living in a house in Vermont with three other college friends during quarantine, where they’re taking remote courses at their college. They have created a COVID bubble, and before they moved into this rental, they had long conversations establishing ground rules for behavior in the pandemic: what each of them considered safe and what dangerous. James is the most conservative on this score, because he lived with his immunocompromised mother before moving to this house, and his grandfather died of COVID, which spread in his nursing home. Ella is one of the least conservative. She comes from a state with few public health regulations and doesn’t know anybody who got sick. Earlier in the day, a friend of Ella’s—a friend not in their bubble—dropped by the house. She and Ella hugged and sat outside on the steps talking, without wearing masks. This was very upsetting to James. James and Ella are now loading the dishwasher after dinner. Write two pages of dialogue. Do not have them mention COVID, their bubble or anything pandemic-related.


Good Company

By Bianca Sass ’23

“You don’t have to wash them so carefully before you put them in, you know,” Ella said, shaking her head and laughing.

“Then what am I even here for?”

She shrugged. “You make good company.”

“You would get lonely doing the dishes.”

“Luckily, I’ll never need to find out, will I?”

“I guess not.”

James finished scrubbing a bowl and passed it to her.

“Ha!” she said, pointing at him. “You just did it again!”

He raised his hands above his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that’s just how I’ve always done it.”

Ella smiled ruefully. “They say that’s the most dangerous phrase in the English language, you know.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not in reference to dish-washing techniques.”

“Sure, but the idea’s the same. Being open to change and all that.”

“I suppose.”

There was silence for a moment, save for the sounds of glasses clinking.

“Do you put wine glasses on top or on the bottom?”

“Top, I think.”

As James rinsed out another glass they’d used to drink the homemade Shirley Temples they’d made the night before—which had tasted more like cough drops than cocktails—Ella reached across him and grabbed a handful of silverware out of the sink.

“What the hell? I haven’t even washed those off yet!” he said.

“Relax! They don’t even have that much schmutz on them! The dishwasher will get it.”

James huffed out a sigh, squeezing his eyes shut. “That’s not the point. It’s just gross!”

“OK, OK! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again.”

He rubbed his temples, taking a deep breath. “No, it’s fine. Forget about it.”

“Here, I’ll give you them back to wash off,” Ella said, bending down to take a few forks out of the dishwasher, then stepping towards him.

James stumbled backwards. “Shit! Can you stop getting all up in my space?”

The smile slipped from Ella’s face, and she narrowed her eyes.

“What?”

“I don’t know! I just don’t want you breathing down my neck!”

“What does that even mean?” she asked. But before he could answer, she added, “You know what? You’re not being good company anymore, and I don’t actually need your help. So why don’t you just go back upstairs and go watch Avatar with the boys, and I’ll finish up here?”

“No fucking way. Then all our dishes will be unusable.”

“James! I’m putting them into a dishwasher!”

He gawked at her. “Ella, dishwashers don’t work a hundred percent of the time!”

“What are you even talking about?” she demanded, raising her voice to match his.

“Dishwashers don’t always get all the shit off the dishes! Which you would know, if you’d had to do things around the house at any point in your childhood, or if you’d had an ounce of independence before this! But you haven’t, and it fucking shows.”

Ella looked down. “OK. I don’t really know what to do with that, but whatever. If you’re a trained and certified dishwasher, I’ll just leave you to it. Even though that’ll just reinforce this idea you have that I don’t do any work. But that’s what you want, right? For everyone to walk around reinforcing the beliefs you already have.”

“No, it’s not. I—”

But Ella was already halfway across the kitchen.

“Good night, James. See you tomorrow.”


A Long Semester

By RonnieMarie Falasco ’21

“Aw man,” Ella sighed, leaning back onto the edge of the kitchen sink. “I completely forgot that I ​just painted my nails before dinner.”

 “And?” questioned James.

“Well, nail polish chips so easily, and I’d hate to ruin mine after only an hour. I just feel like I probably shouldn’t be on pot-scrubbing duty to keep them safe, you know?”

“I’ve actually never painted my own nails, so no, I actually don’t know.”

“Good one, J,” Ella smirked. “It’s just that they look so good right now. And, honestly, they probably haven’t even fully dried yet. I mean, imagine if a piece of fried rice got stuck on one of my nails while I was cleaning the rice pot. How gross would that be?”

“Oh, El!” James pouted, dramatically clutching at his chest. “How ever would you survive such a terrible event?”

“Oh, James,” Ella responded, playing along with what she thought were innocent theatrics. “Without the help of a big, strong man like you, I don’t think I could!”

James shook his head. “You’re unbelievable.”

“What did I do?” she asked, the corners of her mouth turning up slightly.

“Are you really gonna make me do the chore that ​???? you ​signed up for? Again? You did the same thing Tuesday night.”

“I mean, I didn’t say that, but if you really feel inclined to—”

“Oh my god, just move over,” he cut in, his hand motioning her away from where she stood in front of the sink.

“Aw, James!” she gushed. “You shouldn’t have!”

He turned the faucet on full-blast, pivoting the handle as far toward the red “H” as it could go. “Oh, but I always do, don’t I?”

“Huh?”

“I said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

“Oh, okay. I couldn’t hear you over the faucet. This house has insanely good water pressure, by the way! Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere, but I was expecting much worse. Wait, did I tell you guys at dinner about what happened in my seminar yesterday?”

“I don’t remember,” James mumbled as he got to work on a rice-covered pan.

“It was crazy. So, I log into the Zoom chat, and our professor tells us he’s going to put groups of two of us into breakout rooms, which, as you know, is a nightmare to begin with. He says each pair has to come up with four discussion questions that they’ll have to ask the class. Of course, I get put into a breakout room with Jordyn, of all people. You remember Jordyn, right?”

“Sure.”

“Yeah, so I end up coming up with all four questions, because she didn’t do any of the readings. Shocker. Trying to be nice, I tell her I’ll give a little introduction speech and present two questions, and then she can present the other two. Mind you, this professor is a hardo when it comes to grading discussions, so I literally outlined every word for her so that she didn’t completely embarrass us like she did that one time last semester. We go back to the main Zoom call, and—” Ella paused for a moment to peer over her shoulder. “Can you even hear me over that water?”

Enveloped in a cloud of steam, James slightly shrugged. Without turning his face away from the sink, he extended his right arm out towards her. “Hand me that pot on the stove.”

“Okay, so we go back into the main Zoom call,” Ella continued as she placed the pot in James’ outstretched hand. “The professor tells us we’re presenting first. Just as I’m about to start my little introduction spiel, Jordyn starts talking. She goes on for two minutes about God knows what and then proceeds to present all four questions. And the best part? After reading the questions, she goes, ‘Yeah, I actually came up with these last night while I was reading the articles.’ Isn’t that insane?”

“Crazy.”

“I checked Moodle before dinner to see what grade I got on that discussion. I got a 70????. Out of 100????. Seven. Zero.”

“That’s tough.”

“It just sucks that my grade in the class is bad because of Jordyn. I told her exactly what to do, and she still couldn’t do it. This is why I hate group projects. There’s always somebody who can’t follow the rules and has to mess it up for everyone.”

James chuckled under his breath as he scrubbed the last bit of grease off the pot. Ella peered over her shoulder again. “Did you say something?”

He placed the now clean pot into the drying rack, marking the last of the dirty dishes

he’d have to scrub for Ella that night. “Just agreeing with you, that’s all.”

“Oh, good. I just needed someone to make me feel like I’m not being dramatic. Also, it’s still the beginning of the semester, so I have plenty of time to get my grade up, right? I’m just hoping that for the rest of the discussions, I get paired with partners who will actually work with me and listen to me, you know? If not, it’s going to be a loooooong semester.”

James watched the torrent of scalding water continue to pour out of the faucet, shutting it off just as the sink threatened to overflow. “It could be a long semester, for sure.”


Falasco is a psychology major from Broomall, Pa.