Have you ever played the writer’s game? You know, the one in which you listen in on a random conversation between strangers on the bus, in the park or at the train station – and write down every word?
Feels a bit odd, doesn’t it?
It’s not just the fact that we’re taught it’s not polite to listen in on other people’s business. That’s a big part of it. But also, if you look at what you wrote down (if you can read your handwriting), it looks strange. Stilted. A bit false – even though you know it’s real!
Real conversations are different to dialogue in narratives. Real dialogue trots along in fits and starts. Sometimes it hustles and at other times it dawdles. Often seems as if each person is an actor – but they’re in different shows.
Here’s a short conversation I once scribbled down on a train platform in Toronto, one Monday morning:
Tall: ‘How did the results go?’
Short (loudly): ‘I nearly called you!’
Tall: ‘I worked late Friday…’
Short: ‘It was such a pain! They didn’t even call me until ten past! It’s so…! I just…! Huh!’
Tall: ‘Good news though?’
Short: ‘Oh my God! And would you believe it? My kids….
Oh, yeah. Great.
But it’s all just so… Honestly, they mess you about…’
I won’t go on. Did you notice that Tall is asking a caring question, but Short is all over the place and keeps her guessing? Short doesn’t engage with the empathy of Tall. She keeps her friend waiting, possibly to extend the feeling of being in the limelight. She’s all about attention, loud statements, complaints, huffing and grumbling – even though the news was good!
I walked away from those strangers with the perception that one was supportive, probably a lovely person, and the other was utterly self-absorbed.
Authors love doing this. They use dialogue to reveal character. Without having to say that Mitchell is conceited or self-obsessed, or that Auden is empathetic and kind, they would use a conversation such as this to show us these facts.
But they would make each word work so much harder.
Authors stuff dialogue with little clues to motivation as well as character – probably moving the plot along as well as developing the character.
The trick to dynamic dialogue is making it seem real, but it’s better than real, it’s packed full of revelations.
Dial up the Dialogue – a Step 4: Dynamic Dialogue Action Activity
- Read short sections of dialogue from books. Chapter books are good for this – they don’t have to be familiar to students.
- (If you’re wondering where to start, try our list of Books that Demonstrate the Seven Steps.)
- After reading a short passage, ask students to get into pairs and discuss the following questions:
- Who do we think is speaking?
- What sort of person are they? (What sort of friend would they be?)
- Does this dialogue move any action along? (Advance the plot.) How do you know?
- Does this dialogue tell you about the motivation or reasons a character might DO something?
- What else did you notice?
- Give pairs 3 minutes to answer some of these questions, and then share and take class notes of students’ responses.
- Consider your observations and then discuss:
- Did the dialogue do more than one thing?
- After dissecting a piece of dialogue (you could share the real dialogue above, as well), engage students in a short writing task.
- With their partner, students write a short conversation between two characters.
- A list of characters and situations is below (let pairs choose, or assign them an option).
- Each student plays one character. They share a piece of paper and write their dialogue, taking turns.
- Keep it fast, get them to ‘sling’ their sentences back and forth as quickly as they can!
- After 5 minutes, share some results.
- If time permits, pairs switch to a different situation and characters and practise slinging some dialogue again.
Here are some partner characters and silly situations. Feel free to add your own!
The Gallery Director has just dropped the artist’s latest masterpiece on the floor.
The fan wants the celebrity chef to recommend his favourite recipe in his cookbook – but the chef didn’t actually write the book, he hired someone to do it for him!
The trainer is managing a team of two horses and a wagon — the truck is in the way and the truck driver doesn’t want to back it up.
The kid’s library book is forty-two weeks overdue. He doesn’t want to admit that he lost it.
The new house frame is going great! Except that one of the walls is in the wrong place and there is no room for a door…
There’s no water at the resort, the pool is empty. But the hotel owner doesn’t want to refund the guest’s booking fee.
The bus stops and a passenger tries to get on… carrying a full-sized mattress! (This actually happened.)
The patron has a seat to see the hit musical, but there’s been a mistake at the Box Office and they sold his seats twice…
Last night’s hit cooking show featured strawberries. Today, there aren’t any left — anywhere in town!
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