Sunday, September 14, 2014

Teaching Dialogue and the Creation of Scenes

L.8.1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
L.8.2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

L.8.3. Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.

In my 8 grade writing class, students learn the proper punctuation of dialogue, but I want them to go beyond that; I want them to understand the use of dialogue and how to create valuable dialogue in their own writing. I also want them to understand that writing a story completely in dialogue has its limitations and usually for students, leaves out important sensory information for the reader.  So one of the most valuable lessons I teach my students is how to create scenes.

Before we get to scenes,  we examine what dialogue can reveal in a story. Students take notes that discuss how dialogue can:
  • 1.      Reveal character (their personality, their motivations, their emotional state, even their education level,  among other things.)
  • 2.      Move the story along- I’ll illustrate in a moment.
  • 3.      Can reveal setting- where the characters are, where they were, where they were going, etc.

 Two specific CCS are targeted as we move forward to examine dialogue in mentor texts and excerpts and its  importance in writing-

RL.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

RL.8.3. Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

I use this simple example to show what dialogue can do for a story:   “Thank you so much for holding the door for me! Second floor please. ” The dialogue reveals where the characters are and that the character is at least a polite person at first glance. I ask students which is more direct and to the point- the above dialogue or this:
Susan ran toward the closing elevator as the door was closing. A hand jutted out a the last moment ad stopped  the door from closing. She dashed in and moved to the corner thanking the man for holding the elevator for her. She then let him know which floor she needed, asking him to push the second floor button.
The actual dialogue is more direct and to the point- moving the story along,  it reveals location and something about the character without needless description that overall, is not important to the story.

We look at other dialogue examples and have a class discussion about what each reveals about the character, setting or how it moves the story along. Here are a few examples of what I use for this purpose:
  • ·         “Get outta my way, ya dumb sevvie!  I’m gonna be late for algebra!” (In this example we also discuss slang and how we talk versus proper writing. I emphasize that it’s OK to write dialogue the way you want your character to ‘talk’.)
  • ·         “Jason, this is the fourth time you’ve missed a key free throw.  Get back out there and practice until you make ten in a row.  No excuses.”
  • ·         The man took off his dark, stained hat and stood with a curious humility in front of the screen. “Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma’am?”
Mae said, “This ain’t a grocery store. We got bread to make san’widges.”
“I know, ma’am.” His humility was insistent. “We need bread and there ain’t 
nothin’ for quite a piece, they say.”
“‘F we sell bread we gonna run out.” Mae’s tone was faltering.
“We’re hungry,” the man said.
“Whyn’t you buy a san’widge? We got nice san’widges, hamburgs.”
“We’d sure admire to do that, ma’am. But we can’t. We got to make a dime do all of us.” And he said embarrassedly, “We ain’t got but a little.”
(From The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 15)

I use excerpts from Killing Mr. Griffin and Cirque Du Freak as well. Students enjoy reading excerpts from these young adult novels- often reading it themselves- and we notice what the dialogue reveals about the characters in particular in these excerpts.

From there we move on to discuss formation of scenes, that dialogue is not often used alone in writing. A scene includes more than just what’s said and a speaker tag. Description is used and combined with dialogue, we create scenes.
Here’s our formula:
Dialogue +Description = a scene.  

And we discuss how this is another form of “show don’t tell”.  We re-examine the above excerpts and discuss what is being shown beyond the words. What is described/included? Often scenes include facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice and movement or further clues to understand the story.

Students are asked to highlight examples of each in various excerpts and then we try our hand at creating scenes. A great story I found online “They’re Made  Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson (Entire Story Here) is told entirely in dialogue from two aliens’ points of view about mankind.  

We begin by reading the story and examining what the dialogue reveals about their attitudes, their character, etc. My students are amazed at what they can tell me about the aliens simply through the dialogue – the author is very clever in use of dialogue to reveal so much!

The next day students are directed to partner-up, they get the story back and are directed to take at least 4 lines of dialogue from the story and to create scenes from it.  They really enjoy this exercise and they work together to add facial expressions, movement and gestures among other things.  Questions such as, ‘What do the aliens look like?’ come up and we discuss what is NOT provided to the reader when only dialogue is used. I give them free reign to design their aliens when adding description to the words. We share our results and discuss what is effective and what is not and we point out what has been revealed- character traits, emotional state, does it move the story along? Etc.

Student Example:
"They're made out of meat," the slimy green alien shouted as he oozed into the control room of the spaceship.

"Meat?" questioned the second alien, a bushy brown creature with blue tentacles. He did not look up, but continued to punch the buttons on the control panel before him.

Aggravated and spurting slime, the first alien repeated, "Meat. They're made out of meat."

Looking up with interest, the brown alien peered over his spectacles, "Meat?" He moved to the display console and peered out at the planet Earth.

One of the issues my 8 graders had in understanding the story was who was talking and what they were talking about. After the student shared his scene, we discussed how it becomes apparent from the start of the story who they might be referring to as a result of the description added.

You can take scenes from any story- remove the descriptive parts and leave nothing but the dialogue and speaker tag. Have students create scenes from the dialogue and then compare theirs to the original.

Through examining models, annotating examples and then trying it themselves, students develop stronger dialogue in their narratives. In addition, we are also looking at punctuation to reinforce the mechanics of dialogue.  It is important to note that once you add speaker tags and description, the punctuation changes and students practice doing this as they write.

Once we have studied dialogue and the creation of scenes, students are directed to return to their narratives and to create scenes for their own dialogue. Many times students add dialogue, understanding what it can do for a story as a result of our studies.