Dialogue That Does Something (Reading Like a Writer Series)

March 27, 2018

 It's time for another experiment:

 

Consider this first line of dialogue from Charlotte's Web (1952) by E.B. White:

 

"'Where's Papa going with the ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

 

What does this line of dialogue lead you to think?

How does it make you feel?

How does it draw you into the story?

 

Now, consider if the line of dialogue had read something like this:

 

"Hi, Papa!," yelled Fern to her dad as he walked past the door, carrying an ax.

"Hi, Fern," Papa replied.

 

What does this dialogue lead you to think?

How does it make you feel?

How does it draw you into the story?

How is it different from the previous example?

 

In the first example, the dialogue that the author included is more than just words that one character says to another. "Where's Papa going with the ax?" gives the reader a sense of setting and action, but it also helps create a mood. You can tell something is up with Papa and that his heading to the barn so early in the morning is not necessarily a good thing.

 

Dialogue, when used well, is the perfect writing tool to move a story forward without having to over-explain things. It allows the reader to use their own thinking to draw inferences, make predictions, and fill-in-the-blanks that enrich the reading experience. 

 

When students add dialogue to their narratives, what kind of dialogue are they including? Most often, it is similar to the second example. They are adding dialogue just to have their characters speak, not to move the story forward. 

 

Using mentor texts and your read aloud to read like a writer is the perfect tool for discovering how to effectively use dialogue when writing.  Students need to see how other authors are using dialogue in order to understand how to use it correctly in their own writing.

 

Consider some other examples of dialogue:

 

From Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard (2015) by Rick Riordan:

"'Unbelievable,' said the girl, 'I want to strangle him.'...Her dad sighed. 'We should probably avoid killing him. He is your uncle.'"

 

From To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee:

"'Scout yonder's been readin' ever since she was born, and she ain't even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin' on seven.'

 

'I'm little, but I'm old,' he said."

 

From Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972) by Judy Blume:

"When I got back to the table, I heard Mrs. Yarby say, 'It must be interesting to have children. We never had any ourselves.'

 

'But if we did,' Mr. Yarby told my father, 'we'd teach them some manners. I'm a firm believer in old-fashioned good manners.'

 

'So are we, Howard,' my father said it a weak voice.

 

I thought Mr. Yarby had a lot of nerve to hint that we had no manners."

 

 

As you are conducting your read aloud, take some time to point out the dialogue the author has included. Spend some time modeling for your students how you, the reader, reacts to the dialogue.

 

Then, ask your students to share what the dialogue makes them think, feel, infer, predict or conclude. Doing this together during the read aloud will teach students to pay attention to the power of dialogue.

 

After doing this, it is easier to transition students into including purposeful dialogue in their own writing.

Next week in our Read Like a Writer Series

Fantastic First Lines 

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