Using Dialogue: What We Need to Teach Our Students First

I am participating in #SOL21. Thanks for the space to write, read, and grow.

“If you are using dialogue — say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.” – John Steinbeck

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 (2017), 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 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. Dialogue is used to offer an explanation, give a direction, show strong emotion, and drive a story’s plot forward. In Toad Weather by Sandra Markle, the author uses dialogue to offer important explanations. The rainy day story is about a real event in Roxborough, a neighborhood in the Northwest section of the city of Philadelphia, and how the community helps toads safely cross a busy road to get to their destination. Dialogue is often used to reveal emotions, draw the reader into the characters’ lives, and  show the reader how the character reacts to different situations, such as pressure, hate, love or fear.  

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 to the plot in some way.
  14. Do not ramble on without the characters learning anything knew or achieving something.
  15. Avoid using dialogue to summarize action that could otherwise be exciting.
  16. Use dialogue to add humor or pick up the pace of the story (usually after long descriptions).

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.

8 thoughts on “Using Dialogue: What We Need to Teach Our Students First

  1. Absolutely! Let’s talk more about the whys before we teach the hows. Love the tips you give here, too. I wonder if Widget is still in print. It’s a great book for mentor text as it has so many uses.
    Have a great Monday, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynne, dialogue is such an important tool writers use. Knowing the reason it is used at a particular point is important for students to know. Dialogue helps move the story along by giving us insight into the speaker. What they say and how they say it is all part of character development.

    Liked by 1 person

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