Dialogue -That's What I'm Talking About!

Students using dialogue in their writing is frequently defined by extremes –too much or too little!

Where there is too much dialogue, the writing is more like a script. The writing often lacks any structure in which the dialogue can be supported. We have all seen students doing this with dialogue. They may have whole pages with characters talking except there is something missing. It’s the internal voice –the voice inside the character’s head along with the actions and movements that people make as they talk.

Then there’s the other situation where the dialogue is either non existent or so stilted that it is almost banal. For dialogue to be of value it must reveal something about the characters and their relationship with one another. If the dialogue reveals little about the characters we begin to lose interest in them. A character’s dialogue needs to be pithier than merely talking about the weather. It should aim to push the plot along or reveal something about the plot the reader didn’t know previously. If a character is fussy or worried this should show through in the dialogue.
One tip to improve how students use dialogue is to try getting them to sandwich action between pieces of dialogue so that it looks like this:

Dialogue – Action – Dialogue

‘We’ll have to keep on eye on him’ The preacher put his arm around Winn Dixie. ‘We’ll have to make sure he doesn’t get out during a storm. He might run away.’
Source: Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo

This makes a more engaging text variation than having the character speak and then continually adding – Trent said, or Sally said. This eventually becomes annoying for the reader. If the writer sets the conversation between characters out correctly you don’t actually have to keep saying who is speaking –it’s obvious, particularly when only two characters are conversing.

‘What do we do next?’ I asked
‘We stay here and wait.’ my father said
‘Are they all roosting Dad?’
‘Yes. They’re all around us. They don’t go far.’
‘Could I see them if I shone my light into the branches?’
Source: Danny The Champion of the World, Roald Dahl

One of the best ways to conduct a close study of dialogue is to undertake a mentor study. Gathering the work of a particular author and examine how that author uses dialogue. In that way students reach a deeper understanding of craft and conventions. Using authors your students know and trust is the way to go. Have them think about how the author uses dialogue to add to the story. For those students experiencing difficulties using dialogue effectively this would also be a good time to use guided or interactive writing to assist the development of this important text support.


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