Using Dialogue: What We Need to Teach Our Students First

Most of the time, good monologue and dialogue is all about show not tell.  Occasionally, they can be used to offer directions or an explanation. Often, monologue and dialogue can be used to help the writer reveal her characters to the reader. They sometimes reveal characters by what other characters say about them; or sometimes, character reveals his true colors just by what the character says (or doesn’t say!).

Often, teachers begin by trying to teach students how to use writing conventions to properly punctuate conversations. Students learn about quotation marks, the use of commas and other end punctuation, how to place explanatory words before or after the words that are directly spoken, and to begin on a brand new line every time the speaker changes. Of course, it is helpful to learn this since it makes it easier for a reader to follow along. But is it the best place to start?

I believe the journey begins with teaching students why an author chooses to use dialogue – determining the purpose it serves and how it changes a piece of writing. In Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 (2nd ed.), Rose and I have added a section called “Dipping Into Dialogue” (p.80-81). We talk about the things that dialogue can do such as revealing emotion, offering an explanation, and how a character solves a problem. Dialogue can also be a powerful tool for a way to end a story, showing readers what the main character is thinking and feeling. In Widget by Lyn Rossiter McFarland, neighbors arrive to visit Mrs. Diggs after her fall, surprised to discover that the “cat” lady has a dog. In answer to a neighbor’s query, Mrs. Diggs replies.

“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Diggs.  “it’s nice to have a dog. Right, girls?”  The girls (six cats) are shown in the final illustration gathered around Widget. Clearly, we understand that Widget will have a home forever.  That’s the only conversation in the book.

Dialogue can also be used to show conflict, suggest a setting, advance the plot, and reveal character traits and motives. When using dialogue, consider these tips:

  1. Scatter dialogue where it is most useful and effective (For example, to give variety after several paragraphs of description or exposition.
  2. Long conversations may be broken up with some action.
  3. Use region, group, or profession-specific language, or hobby/activity-specific language.
  4. Use dialogue within descriptive narration for a purpose.
  5. Avoid myriad alternatives to he said and she said. It starts to sound phony.
  6. Avoid using too much direct address.
  7. Listen to the way people talk – in your writer’s notebook, note speech patterns.
  8. Use the three-sentence rule: give no character more than three uninterrupted sentences at once.
  9. Don’t have your characters tell each other things they already know.
  10. For older students, try to achieve the tone you want without using stereotypes, slang, or profanity. Keep it to a bare minimum. It’s distracting!
  11. Read widely. Find mentor texts that will help you take risks and try out dialogue for a specific purpose(s).
  12. Be sure to read like a writer, noticing when the dialogue made the character real – almost like she was jumping off the page!
  13. Remove filler words and unessential dialogue that doesn’t contribute in some way to the development of the plot.

It’s important to trust your audience to make some inferences as they read: in fact, part of the enjoyment of reading a story that leads to real engagement is to be a good detective and piece the puzzle together.  Dialogue has many uses. Let’s begin with an inquiry approach to discover the whys and then teach our kids the hows.

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