After reading second drafts of my students’ narratives, I was wowed by so much of their writing. Thoughtful leads, powerful topics, intriguing plot structures. But, despite a mini-lesson on the conventions of writing dialogue last week, some of their characters’ conversations were lacking. I needed to design a responsive mini-lesson accordingly.
Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Synthesize your knowledge of how punctuation works with narrative speech conventions to craft thoughtful dialogue; Construct dialogue based on your knowledge of a character’s personality. Or, from the Common Core: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Lesson — While reading drafts, I set aside a few exemplary pieces of student work in terms of dialogue. In each class period, there were at least two students whose dialogue was superior. It was subtle, nuanced, and really added to the characters’ depth.
I asked students to open their writer’s notebooks to the Craft Study section and I projected one example of a student’s work on the board using my document camera. “Good dialogue isn’t just about what a character says,” I begin. “It’s also about how they say it. A greeting can really change based on phrasing or punctuation.”
I point to the example on the board. It’s Logan’s, and in his dialogue, his mom is yelling at him for getting drunk:
“LOGAN WAITMAN SANDERS!” Mom hollered. “Just WHAT do you think you are doing, young man?! And…and…YOU, Jeremy! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Everyone laughs, and I ask a volunteer to read the dialogue aloud. Dylan does, with perfect angry-Mom-inflection. He makes Logan shrink back in his seat a little.
I ask the class, “Why did Dylan know how to read that dialogue so perfectly?” They volunteer: the capitalization helped; he knew when to raise his voice. “How did he know to stutter?” They say: the dots (ellipses, I add helpfully) told him to stutter. “How did he know to sound kind of incredulous while yelling?” They reply: the exclamation points, and especially that exclamation point mixed with a question mark. “How did he know when to pause?” They know: commas.
I put up other kinds of punctuation on the board–dashes, periods, italics–and we discuss what effect each of those would have on a character’s dialogue. Students jot all this down in their notebooks. Then, I pass back their drafts and ask them to find a partner. “Now that you know how to really make dialogue more personal, revise your dialogue in your drafts. Work with a partner to determine whether or not your dialogue has the effect you want it to when you revise–write a line, then ask your partner to read it aloud the way Dylan read Logan’s.”
Students take ten minutes per person to revise, then we launch into writer’s workshop with the remainder of class. I write beside them on the board, working on my own dialogue in my NaNoWriMo novel.
In each of my other classes, we repeat this exercise with drafts that contain good dialogue. It’s so important to use student work as mentor texts–students see that great writing is attainable, not just imitable, when we show them their peers’ successes.
Follow-Up — After today’s revision and writing workshops, students will have one more day in class to keep working on their drafts before turning them in again. I’ll hope to see much improved dialogue, and as such, I’ll ask writers to answer a question on their self-evaluations about how their dialogue enhances their characterization.