How to Write Effective Dialogue
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 write a reflective and narrative essay, 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.
ELA Common Core Standards
Teaching how to write dialogue satisfies the following common core standards.
L.9-10.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
L.9-10.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
L.9-10.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
L.9-10.3a Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g., MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type.
W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
W.9-10.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in W.9-10.1-3.)
W.9-10.5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of L.9-10.1-3.)
1. 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.
2. 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.?
Teaching Dialogue Procedures
1. 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 Place2.
2. Divide students into pairs.
- Show them a picture of people talking. Pictures involving a literary work they are reading are 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.”
Revision Lesson Plan Procedures
Use these procedures for helping students revise an essay or story with dialogue.
- 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.
Types of Essays
Step-by-step instructions for writing different types of essays can be accessed by the following links.