When it comes to writing fiction, even professionals struggle with creating enjoyable, engaging dialogue. It’s a part of writing that’s deceptively difficult.
Why students struggle with writing dialogue
At first glance, it seems like dialogue shouldn’t be so difficult to write. Many students don’t understand how dialogue should work.
This is a problem, because poorly written dialogue can bring down an otherwise great story. Bad dialogue drags the pace of the story down, snuffs any tension that might have been building, and makes reading a chore.
How should you teach this?
This can seem like a daunting topic to teach. Where do we even start? Luckily, there are some easy strategies you can teach your students to improve their dialogue skills.
Start with dialogue punctuation rules
Before your students even dig into the content of their dialogue, they may run into a roadblock when it comes to dialogue formatting.
Where do the quotation marks go? Is the punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks.
It’s helpful to provide your students with practice or a “cheat sheet” on the technical aspects of dialogue punctuation.
While it seems complicated, your students will have success punctuating dialogue by using these simple rules:
- Anything the character says will be inside double quotation marks.
- Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
- Dialogue tags are not included in quotation marks.
- Start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes.
Of course, there are a few more rules that they may encounter, plus style choices. Students generally have the most difficulty with #4 because they don’t want to have short paragraphs — or a paragraph of one or two words.
That’s why noticing how dialogue is written in mentor texts will be helpful.
Fortunately, teaching the punctuation rules is a quick mini lesson. And, understanding the dialogue rules in writing will give students confidence.
Start with the importance of mentor texts
When you are looking for dialogue examples for students, you probably won’t have to go any further than your classroom library.
Start by using and referring to mentor texts. Spend time just looking at how dialogue is written.
A quick mini lesson is to ask students “what they notice” about the way dialogue is written. Create a list or anchor chart with those items.
Students will have a guide and examples for how to write dialogue in a narrative. It’s okay if they mimic what they see in mentor texts. This helps build confidence.
Use dialogue prompts
Before students begin adding dialogue to an essay or narrative, give them practice.
This makes a great dialogue mini lesson.
Some ideas for simple writing prompts:
- two friends are deciding where to go for fun
- an argument between two people about a soccer game
- a parent and child discussing healthy food choices
- one student trying to persuade another to trade lunches
- two strangers on the bus talking about the unusual weather
- a sports announcer calling a game
Giving students time to practice the technical aspects writing with dialogue will build their confidence. They’ll also understand how dialogue can advance the plot.
Provide a specific task
Students can sometimes get tripped up if they’re not sure where dialogue is supposed to go.
By providing a specific writing task, such as crafting a short story or adding dialogue to a narrative, students will have a clear idea of what you want them to do.
1. Don’t Write Speech
Think about how people talk. Oftentimes, we use a lot of filler words: “um,” “like,” “so,” et cetera. We might repeat the same things multiple times, lose our train of thought, or just ramble until we trail off.
Now pick a mentor text. Odds are, the characters in that text don’t do any of those things. Instead, the dialogue is clear, easy to understand, and most important, to the point.
This is the difference between writing speech and writing dialogue. A good writer doesn’t write speech–she writes dialogue. Dialogue gets to the point. It doesn’t meander, it doesn’t stumble over itself, and most importantly, it has something to say.
How to do this:
If your students want to write like they speak, have them read through their dialogue and highlight things like filler words, rambling, and lines that don’t lead anywhere.
Now cut those sections out of the dialogue.
What they should be left with isn’t how they speak, but instead it’s how they think they speak. It has a more natural pace and consistent tone, and it gets to the point of their dialogue.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
This is one of the biggest mantras among writers, and it extends outside of dialogue. We’ve all experienced the opposite: tell, don’t show. It’s when characters just tell us what their relationships are to each other, or just stop to explain the plot or who they are and what their “deal” is.
The problem with this kind of writing is that it becomes extremely awkward. When a writer does this, they’re signaling one of two things to their audience:
- I don’t trust you to pick up on this otherwise.
- I’m not confident enough to write this in a less overt way.
Neither of these are good things. The first makes the audience think that the writer believes they’re stupid, while the second makes the audience think that the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing. Either way, it starts to turn the audience against the writer.
How to teach this:
Make students think about their word choice. For example, if two characters are brothers, how can the writer tell us that as readers– without using words like brother, bro, or sibling?
- Maybe the younger brother tries to mimic his older brother’s actions or mannerisms.
- Are they extremely competitive? Sibling rivalries are great ways to express character relationships, as well as showing the reader what these characters value.
- Do they look like each other, maybe even to such a degree that other characters confuse them for each other?
- Do they tease or pick on each other? Are they protective of each other in spite of that, like a sort of “I can pick on my brother, but nobody else can” relationship.
Keep in mind, many of these methods don’t rely exclusively on dialogue–characterization can happen anywhere in the text.
3. Leave the Monologues in the Theatre
Unless one of your students is William Shakespeare, they shouldn’t be writing monologues.
Think about it, how often do we break into unprompted soliloquy?
Rarely, I hope.
Why is this a problem?
Monologues often drag stories down, slowing the pace down dramatically as a character essentially just talks directly to the reader.
How to fix this writing issue:
This is a solution that goes hand in hand with showing instead of telling. If a student has a character monologuing about their feelings or motivations, ask them how they could get that across without dialogue.
If character A doesn’t like character B, how can the writer express this without a long explanation?
Here are some dialogue prompts you can try.
- A might mimic things that B says in a sarcastic tone
- Maybe A’s tone shifts whenever B enters the room. When B isn’t present, they are cheerful and joking, but once B enters, they become irritable and short tempered.
- Does A try to avoid talking to B? As soon as B enters the room, is A looking for a way out?
- Is B even aware that A doesn’t like them? If they are, how do they respond?
Your students might end up solving this problem without even using dialogue, and that’s fine.
A large part of writing good dialogue is not only knowing how dialogue should work, but also knowing when to use it, and when to use something else.
4. Pay Attention to the Tags
There are two main problems a lot of new writers run into with choosing dialogue tags.
When students are struggling with how to write dialogue between two characters, the tags can quickly get in the way.
Here’s what usually happens:
Problem #1: The “Said” Syndrome
This is likely to be the first problem your students run into if they’re struggling with their tags. The student understands that they need to identify who is saying each line of dialogue, but they aren’t sure how to do it. As a result, every line of dialogue ends with:
- he said
- she said
- he said
Dialogue become flat and boring to the reader.
Problem #2: Too Many Tags
Many students will fall into this trap when they try to course correct from “Said” Syndrome. They won’t want to use the same tag over and over again, so they wind up choosing more and more diverse tags:
- he spat
- she defended
- he snapped
It’s often the case that we might be tempted to encourage our students to diversify their tags. We might give them lists of dialogue tags, or even tell them to not use tags like “said” or “asked” on account of them being too simple or boring.
Why is this a problem?
When students do this, they wind up putting more emphasis on the tags. The focus of dialogue should be the dialogue.
How to fix this: Mix it Up
Luckily, both of these problems have extremely similar solutions, and telling students to diversify is already on the right track.
Solution #1: The first is that, while using more diverse tags is important, they still should stay simple. Words like “asked,” “said,” “replied,” are simple, but they allow your students to vary their tags without distracting from the dialogue.
Solution #2: The second option is to just rip the tags off completely.
This method works especially well when dialogue is either extremely abrupt, like an interruption, or when dialogue is a quick back and forth.
This can be more difficult to understand if a scene has more than two characters speaking, so it’s a good idea to keep these sections brief.
Removing tags completely is kind of like sprinting. It’s an extremely fast-paced way to deliver dialogue, but the longer it goes on, the more difficult it becomes to sustain that momentum.
5. Get In Late and Leave Early
As a general rule, I don’t like small talk. Two characters discussing the weather, or what they had for lunch is about as engaging as watching paint dry.
Nine times out of ten, small talk does nothing for the characters, and it does nothing for the plot.
How this works:
If your students are struggling with starting a conversation between characters, then a solution can be for them to start in media res, in the middle of things.
Skip the introductions, skip the small talk, and get right to what we’re all here for — the story.
This extends to the end of conversations as well.
This can be a boon for your students. If they don’t know how to end a piece of dialogue once the plot relevant part is over, they can just transition into the next part of their story. In this scenario, we as readers don’t really care about the end of the conversation, because it doesn’t matter to the story.
6. Distinguish Character Voices
We’ve all seen this before. You pick up a story, start reading, and…
Every character sounds the same. Worse, they all sound like the author.
This is something that can be really difficult for new writers to master. How does an author remove their voice from their characters?
Here are a few options your students can consider:
Should My Students Use Slang?
Slang can do a lot to help make a character’s dialogue stand out. If a character often uses a certain phrase or idiom, the writer can use that to help teach us something about the character.
If a student is writing a character from a different time period, including slang or phrases common to those periods can be an option for them to help emphasize when and where that character is from.
But, it can be a mixed bag. Using slang can date a story extremely quickly–does anyone remember when “groovy” or “radical” were common?
Another issue with slang is that it often requires the reader to have a baseline understanding of what the words or phrases used actually mean.
This becomes even more important when slang uses existing words to mean something completely different than what it originally meant (look at Cockney rhyming slang to see what I mean).
What About Accents?
Accents can be fantastic ways to distinguish between characters, but they can also be extremely difficult to pull off well.
When done well, an accent will make a character’s voice distinct and easy to identify. If a character has an extremely thick British accent, that can give readers information about who they are, without ever having to state it:
What kind of British accent is it? There are dozens of different accents from different parts of the country. Is it a refined accent, or is it more of a rough and crass sound? Is it more northern, bordering on Scottish? Each one implies different things about a character.
However, if an accent is poorly used, it can be distracting, or worse, come off as a stereotype. In this case, the accent has the opposite of the intended effect.
If the accent is distracting, it makes reading the dialogue into a chore.
If it comes off as stereotype, then it not only makes it harder to understand who the character is, it also runs the risk of becoming offensive.
Understand the Characters
Ultimately, the easiest way to develop a character’s voice is to understand who they are.
Character A learns that they weren’t accepted into an extremely competitive school. How will they respond?
If we know that Character A is a lifelong overachiever with a dream of becoming a successful politician, we can start to imagine how they will respond to this news.
Now, how would that response be different if that overachiever was replaced Character B, who doesn’t really care about school? What if instead of wanting to become a senator, Character B instead wants to start a band and tour the country?
We can likely predict that Character B will react in a less upset way than Character A.
If a writer understands a character’s personality, their background, beliefs, motivations, and so on, then the character’s voice will start to come naturally.
This is the most useful option, but it can also take the most work on your students’ part.
Try this with your class:
Have your students pick a character from their story. They’re going to imagine that they’re getting to know that character, and try to come up with answers to questions like:
- Are they the protagonist? Are they an antagonist? A side character?
- Where did they grow up?
- What’s their favorite song?
- Do they have any family?
- What kind of movies do they like?
- What do they want to do by the end of the story?
Some of these questions will directly matter for the story, and some of them won’t. But all of them will make the student better understand who this character is. The more they understand the character, the clearer their voice will become.
Looking for more?
You can find ready-to-use writing resources in my shop. These would be helpful:
With gratitude for all you do,