Writing Prompt #4: Dorothy Parker Tackles Dialogue

Matilda Butler, SheWrites Guest Editor and Co-Founder Women's Memoirs


Writing Prompt #4, Dorothy Parker and Writing Dialogue


Dorothy Parker once said, "The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue." It's easy to believe that line as  many of her witticisms bore the marks of that early-day activity. Here are three quotes that show her sharpness:

Young man to Dorothy Parker: "I can't bear fools."

Dorothy Parker to young man: "Funny, your mother could."


"Are you Dorothy Parker?" a guest at a party inquired.

"Yes, do you mind?"


In the street once Dorothy approached a taxi.

"I'm engaged," the cabbie said.

"Then be happy," she told him.


Parker's dialogue exchanges in these three examples show her skill at taking the conversation in an unexpected direction. You can get by with that technique occasionally, but it certainly isn't the way we build believable dialogue in a book. 

Parker's approach that comes across in many of her quotes is an example of bisociation, first described by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act of Creation. He believed that important forms of invention and discovery are created from "a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought..." In other words, a dialogue begins one way and sets up our expectations. Then it goes off in a completely different direction. Go back and re-read the three examples above and you'll see what these seem to be good examples of bisociation.

And Parker knew that strong dialogue needs more than a twist at the end. How did she begin to work on dialogue? In the mid-1930s, she married Alan Campbell (who became her second and third husbands) and they moved to Hollywood to work. She excelled at writing dialogue. Today, if you want to see her technique, you should turn to her short stories such as "The Sexes" or "Arrangement in Black and White." After a brief narrative setup in the opening, most of the stories are dialogue only.

Want to improve your dialogue? Try the Writing Prompt below.

Dorothy Parker Writes Dialogue and SheWrites Experiments

I once had a student who came to class not with her assignment but with multiple examples of short stories that didn't use dialogue. She hoped to prove to me that it was quite all right for her to write without using dialogue. And yes, of course you can. However, your writing will be weaker because you are denying yourself a powerful tool for revealing your characters, an effective tool for moving the plot forward and creating tension, and an essential tool for creating the immediacy of a story.

To give this some thought, consider the following writing prompt.

SheWrites Writes: Another Dorothy Parker-Inspired Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt #1: Thumb through a book you are reading until you find a paragraph of narrative. Now rewrite the paragraph relying solely on dialogue. Read both paragraphs. In what ways has the dynamic changed?

Writing Prompt #2: If you are too busy to look for a paragraph to use, here's one from Looking for Gatsby by Faye Dunaway. Rewrite it with dialogue. As with Writing Prompt #1, read both Dunaway's version and your version. Which is more powerful? 


As Sam spun his tale, I sat there barely believing what I was hearing, but willing my face not to give me away. I was star material, he said, the kind of actress who could expect a 30-year career, which seemed like something close to forever. Sam wanted to sign me to a five-picture deal. We’d do one a year, and then see where things went after that. The details could be worked out with my manager, Simon Maslow, and my agents. The first picture, Mr. Innocent, would pay me about $25,000 for six weeks or so of work, which was more than double what I had ever earned in an entire year. I was already scheduled to fly to London the next weekend to test for another film, Funeral in Berlin, starring Michael Caine. But Sam was offering a sure thing, a multipicture deal with the contract already drawn, just awaiting my signature. The decision wasn’t a difficult one to make.

Once again I would turn down London for a job in the States.


These two writing prompts will help you dig deeper into your use of dialogue. 



PS  Skillful dialogue is more than turning narrative into conversation. Kendra Bonnet and I devote a chapter to the many techniques relevant to dialogue in our new book: Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. We share secrets that put you in total control of your writing process and incorporate the best of social science research to help you write with intense purpose…and have fun in the process.


 I'll be back tomorrow with another Dorothy Parker quote and writing prompt. Hope to see you then.



Matilda Butler is the award-winning author of several books including her co-authored memoir:

Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story 

and the soon-to-be released: 

Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep,

both co-written with her business partner, Kendra Bonnett. Butler and Bonnett are the co-founders of Women's Memoirs, a website with tips and advice for writers. CLICK HERE for free ebooks for women interested in writing their memoirs as well as free videos based on advice from such well-known authors as: Annie Dillard, Ernest Hemingway, William Zinssser, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Berg, Elmore Leonard, Rita Mae Brown, Natalie Goldberg, David McCullough, and others.


For information on their contests, go to: http://womensmemoirs.com/contests/



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Comment by Matilda Butler on June 14, 2012 at 4:59pm

Hi Monica: I agree completely with your attitude. Writing brings challenges to us, but we are all able of tackling them. Best wishes on your current writing.


Comment by Matilda Butler on June 14, 2012 at 4:57pm

Hi Maggie: Dialogue is an element of writing that can be practiced and improved. I've picked up lines just by listening. Sometimes, I turn them into personal writing prompts. How about this one overhead on a bus in Southern California where I was on a writing retreat: "Oh no. Lenny isn't retired. We're still going from casino to casino." Can't you just imagine a story built around that? The woman was on the telephone at the time. Listening is one of the techniques to improving dialogue. Thanks for your comment.


Comment by maggie brooke on June 14, 2012 at 3:47pm

What great ideas for tackling ticklish dialogue!

Comment by Matilda Butler on June 13, 2012 at 7:53pm

Hi Daphne:

Thanks for your comment. If you would like more information about writing dialogue, you'll find some blogs on our website: http://womensmemoirs.com  You can then do a search within the site for posts on "dialogue." Here's one link  as an example: http://womensmemoirs.com/writing-alchemy/5-memoir-writing-tips-dial...


Comment by Daphne Q on June 13, 2012 at 6:50pm

Dialogue is so hard to write... thanks for posting this!


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