Here’s a fragment of a writing exercise from a 2015 fiction class. We were challenged to write believable dialog in which neither character’s sentences contain more than seven words, yet convey a sense of dramatic tension by what is not said.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she said. He’d kicked the covers off for the umpteenth time that night and twisted noisily in the stillness, plumping his pillows.
“It’s hot in here. I can’t sleep.” Phil rolled onto his side and peered at the alarm clock the kids had given him that first Christmas they bought presents with their own money. Without his glasses, the red digits glowed dully in the darkness, inscrutable now, just like the kids. Lorraine made a grrrr sound and yanked the heavy comforter back up under her chin, turning her back against him. They lay like that for a minute or two, she impregnable in her Hello Kitty nightshirt below a wardrobe of designer bedding, and him naked atop the sheet, coiled like a hairy fetus. Her breathing had grown quiet but she was wide awake.
“What are we going to do, Phil?” he heard her voice ask in the darkness.
“The only thing we can do,” he said after a long pause.
“You know I won’t sell the house.” She said this matter-of-factly, adopting that tone women use to end their own arguments.
“We’ve been over this before, honey,” he replied evenly.
“Will you please ask for more time?” Her ‘please’ hung in the darkness like a scimitar and he grasped clumsily for a corner of the sheet to cover his nakedness. It was colder in the room now and the ceiling fan swirled and stirred the dull air above them.
“The IRS doesn’t work that way, Lorraine,” he said.
She ignored him and added brightly, “Just another short filing extension, that’s all.”
He rolled over to face her, pulling the sheet up to warm himself as he did so. In the darkness, he could see her looking back at him, waiting for some redemption he couldn’t give her. “I’ve never asked for an extension, Lorraine.”
“What?” she gasped, now suddenly upright. “Why for God’s sake not?”
Phil touched her shoulder beneath the covers and said, “They think I’m dead.”