Dialogue with Death – personifying abstract nouns


Taking our starting point as Owen’s conversation in ‘Strange Meeting’ and the cynical camaraderie of ‘The Next War’, my senior English class wrote a dialogue for a personified abstract noun.

We began, as usual with words. Firstly, we considered the character of death that Owen had created, and students suggested word such as rough, messy, faceless, unapproachable and masculine. Next, students considered the character of nature to be nurturing, sweet, bright, graceful, caring, mother and feminine.

Students were asked to consider how success might be personified. After writing their own list of words in their journals, we shared our ideas: cheerful, confident, fulfilled, resilient, self-motivated, beaming, persistent, perfectionist, proud, determined, empowering, attractive, accomplished.

Finally, we considered how betrayal might appear, and again shared words: awkward, gloating, powerful, dangerous, smiling, sinister, dirty, dishonest, enigma, sleazy, manipulative, detached, sly, conniving, lonely, self-indulgent, disgraceful.

Interestingly, the majority of students saw both success and betrayal as male characters.

For our writing task, we each chose one personified character to write a dialogue in response to this prompt: If you met ______________________ on the street, what would be your conversation?

Students could spend a few moments profiling their character, and could also include 4 or 5 lines of description about the street where the conversation took place to set the mood. After 25 minutes of writing, students swapped their dialogue with another students to see if they could identify the character, and provide feedback.

Here is my draft:

There I was, standing on a sunny sidewalk, impatiently waiting for a bus. I had already counted every pavement crack and piece of greenery of this decrepit landscape.

Toot! Toot!

A persistent car horn interrupted my angry reverie. I looked up slowly – it didn’t pay to move too quickly in these parts – and my eyes opened wide. I was so unprepared for what my sight beheld.

Catherine Lomax. smiling widely and waving.

The passenger window slowly and soundlessly slid open.

“Hi! Haven’t seen you for ages.”

Stonily, I returned her comment “Me neither.”

“What have you been up to? Didn’t expect to see you here.” Not looking at me any longer, Catherine was checking her lipstick in the rearview mirror, small finger patting each corner of her sly red mouth.

Before she could ask another awkward question, I looked away, stepping sideways, out of her line of sight.

“Hey, c’mon, we used to be so close …”

Then I laughed. Couldn’t help myself, really. Mirth and merriment bubbled up as I replied rhetorically “Close?”

Catherine’s mouth pouted, and she lifted her sunglasses to perch on her raven hair. Obviously a practised move.

I tensed, expecting an onslaught, yet she delivered a sarcastic rejoinder: “Close enough to get me this position. I haven’t forgotten your assistance.”

Her ‘s’s’ were crisp and menacing.

“My assistance? Not given willingly as I recall”. My voice had entered the dance, while my body pulsed with adrenaline. Run. Leave now. Stop engaging.

I took a deep breath, breaking eye contact to check the time on my phone.

“Need to be somewhere?” Catherine’s smugness oozed towards me.

“No. No thanks.” I gave her one long look, sweeping slowly and deliberately over her face and care and attitude.

Then my feet turned and walked in the opposite direction, taking me with them, away from my vicious nemesis to greet the rest of this day on my own terms.

Success at last.

Could you identify betrayal as a middle aged woman?

Dialogue, action and interaction are important elements of characterisation. This exercise is designed for students to develop confidence in their ability to show rather than tell important ideas about their character when writing imaginatively for Paper 1 in the HSC exam.

*Illustration by Clifford Harper

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