After 192 dizzying displays of dialogue in student writing, I decided to drop an anvil on my toe to help me forget about the experience. Luckily, inspiration struck before the anvil.
After teaching students how to create lively characters and to convert telling sentences into showing ones, I felt good about myself until I read their next assignment and realized they didn't know how to write dialogue. Plagued with inane conversations and useless filler, my students' writing made me want to scour my tongue with a Brillo pad. Seconds before scouring my taste buds, I thought of a great way of teaching dialogue. I removed the pad, scrubbed some pots and pans in the teachers' lounge, called my wife, and told her I'd be home late.
I had work to do. I had to find a better way of teaching dialogue. Here's what I came up with:
Discuss the following points on how to write good dialogue:
- Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people.
- Dialogue is essential to fiction writing.
- Dialogue brings characters to life and adds interest.
- Dialogue must do more than just duplicate real speech.
- Writing dialogue consists of the most exciting, most interesting, most emotional, and most dramatic words.
Brainstorm people that might have a conversation and write them on the board and what they might talk about. Some examples:
- Parent - Teacher: How much money might it take for little Billy to get a 'C'?
- Friend - Friend: Who's dating whom?
- Teacher Upholding the Integrity of School Rules - Student Cheating on a Test: How much a zero is going to hurt?
- Someone Celebrating Unusual Independence Day Customs - Loyalist to the British Crown: Why it's OK/Not OK to burn flags?
- Girlfriend Catching Boyfriend With Another Girl - Boyfriend Claiming It Was His Sister: Why boy was making out with his alleged sister?
- Teenager - Parent: What possibly Jose could have been doing out until 3:00 A.M.?
- Divide students into pairs.
- Show them a picture of people talking. Pictures involving a literary work they are reading are most effective.
- Instruct pairs to invent a situation and write a dialogue of at least 10 lines.
- Encourage students to include explanatory material and to write more than just "he said...she said."
As students create their dialogue, write the following functions for dialogue on the board:
- Provide Information
- Describe a Place or Character
- Create a Sense of Time
- Create Suspense or Conflict
- Move the Story Forward
- Reveal a Character's Thoughts
- Summarize What Has Happened
- Create a Sense of Place
- Instruct students to read their drafts.
- Look for places dialogue would enhance the quality of their writing.
- Remind them to use the list on the board to help them find passages.
- Explain that the use of a dialogue tag is not always necessary. Readers often know who is speaking without having to be told.
- For writing passages with several lines of dialogue, instruct students to cover up their dialogue one line at a time.
- Read the dialogue without the covered line. If it makes sense then either change or delete the covered line.
- Ask several students to read their added dialogue to the class and explain why they added it.
- Ask several students to read their dialogue before and after removing dialogue tags.
Organize a paragraph challenge.
* This lesson has been adapted from Mini Lessons for Revision by Susan Geye, 1997, Absey & Co. Spring, TX.