Dialogue Writing Prompt

Here’s another one from the Dave Housley at Barrelhouse:

Two strangers are sitting next to one another on a bus or a train or a plane. It’s a long ride, from one city to another. Each one secretly hopes to get something from the other. For example: one of them wants a job or money or a place to stay in the city where they’re headed. The other one wants love or a one-night stand or, I don’t know, the other person’s prosthetic leg. Neither of them mentions directly what he or she wants. They pretend to make casual small-talk, but each one is actually trying to manipulate the conversation in order to reach his or her secret goal. Write the conversation — or at least, write part of it.

You don’t have to write ONLY in dialogue. You can write this just like any other piece of fiction. Good luck — it’s a tough one.

And here’s what I came up with:

“You ever think it’d be that boring?” The sound of Lance’s question, muffled through a headset. It had been the first thing said by either of them in the last hour

“Well.” Richard’s teeth chattered, dicing up the manufactured air as he inhaled. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know. I guess it looks so much brighter from down there.”

“Just a big rock,” said Richard. “That’s all.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Lance turned away from the portal window and let his body float aimlessly. He closed his eyes and tried to let the silence comfort him; no indicator buzzes, no alarms. It didn’t work. Just the silence of mechanical failure. “Hey. What’re your levels?”

Richard looked down at his gauge. “About half. You?”

“Same. You think—“

“Maybe we should try to be quiet. You know, conserve.”

“Right,” said Lance. “I’m just sayin’…”


Lance propped himself up and stared at his comrade. “That’s right. Such a beautiful girl.”

“She sure is,” said Richard.

“I told her this was the last time I was going up. No more stupid shit, I said. She wants kids.”


“What are your levels now?”

“Same as before,” said Richard. “A little less than half.”

“I just don’t know what to do. I mean… kids.”

“I’m sorry,” said Richard. “I’m just so sorry for everything. I’m sure she is too.”

“What?” asked Lance.

“Nothing. Nothing. We should probably stop talking. But you’re right. Things look a lot brighter from down there.”

Post your in the comments!

Hold Steady Writing Prompt

As mentioned below, I’m currently enrolled in an online writing workshop put on by the guys at Barrelhouse. This week, the prompt came from editor Dave Housley (I hope he doesn’t mind I’m posting this), who had us work off this line: “He’s got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel.”

The line comes from the Hold Steady song “Cattle and the Creeping Things” (which, itself, is part of a larger narrative–Separation Sunday. Check it out.)

Anyway, here’s what I did. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

“He’s got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel.”

“Anything else?”

“Sorry, Alan. Perhaps he didn’t realize the gravity of the situation.”

“No one informed him?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

Alan, a man of great wealth and little faith, turned to the stranger that had been delivered to him. The man stood a little over six feet tall and wore a fedora that shadowed his features. A black shirt, jeans and leather jacket was all he wore. Alan had expected a clergy robe. He tried not to sound angry or impatient: “Do you know what’s happening here?”

The stranger’s head dipped. “Believe so. Daughter’s sick, right?”

A muffled scream seeped through ceiling above them. The sound of glass, shattering.

“You could say that.” Alan looked at the bishop, the one responsible for bringing this stranger into his house.

The bishop shrugged. “He’s our last resort.”

Alan rubbed his thumbs into his eyes and sighed deeply. “Listen Mr…” and when the stranger didn’t fill the blank, he went on. “Have you done anything like this before?”

The stranger looked up to the ceiling, where all the noise was coming from. Light fixtures shook and their illuminations flickered. “Twice,” he said after a long while. “One time worked, the other time didn’t.”

“What do you mean ‘didn’t’?”

“She’s dead.”

Alan’s legs gave out underneath him and he collapsed into the carpet. The bishop motioned as if to pick him up, but Alan brushed him away and sobbed into his arms crossed atop the knees.

“Well, would you at least like a whole Bible?” asked the Bishop. “You could use mine if you want.”

“Nope. Got the pages I need.”

Alan was still sobbing on the floor. “Goddamnit,” he repeated. “Gddamnit, Goddamnit, Goddamnit…”

The stranger stood above him, took cigarette out and lit it. “Indeed,” he said. He took the folded Bible pages out of his pocket and began reciting them—practicing as he climbed the stairs to the daughter’s room.

Barrelhouse Online Workshop

Pretty excited to be doing this. It feels like I like the idea of literary journals more than actual publications. It seems like the ones with good writing are made by people who have no eye for design (writers) and their publications look too homey and grandfatherly. And I know that that shouldn’t matter, because it’s what’s inside that counts, right?

On the other hand, some of the well-designed ones I’ve seen are quite experimental. Not that I can’t hang, but who really wants to read four-hundred pages of stories that deconstruct narrative but offer nothing to take away?

Barrelhouse is one of few publications to achieve a good balance of both design and content (I’m always open to suggestions). They pick good artists and the writing is actually… fun (does it ruin my [little] literary cred to say that?). And anyone who promises free beer to contributors is okay in my book.

So yeah, I can’t wait to see what tricks they have up their sleeve. The ones that they’re willing to share, at least. I think there are a couple spots in the workshop still open, so…