Category Archives: dialog in writing

How to end a scene with a page-turner


Have you ever gone to bed with a novel, planning to read for 20 minutes or so, and found yourself still engrossed an hour later?

How do good writers keep readers captivated ?

Good writers use cliff hangers to end a scene. Cliff hangers can be major events like who shot J.R. Ewing.  In the TV show ”Dallas” in the 1980s, viewers wondered all post-season who shot the villainous J.R. They tuned in in record numbers for the season opener in the fall.  The screen writer of that show wrote a huge cliff hanger.  But cliff hangers can also be small.  Who sent Mom a single rose when it wasn’t even her birthday?  And why did they do it?  Turn the page to find out.

Good writers foreshadow coming events to end a scene. When a grinning Rhett Butler watches Scarlett O’Hara ascend the stairs of the Wilkes mansion, Scarlet feels uncomfortable.  Later when Scarlett discovers that Rhett has overheard her baring her soul to Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet is mortified.  Her early discomfort foreshadows her later embarrassment.

Good writers end a scene with a change of action.  Shakespeare did this all the time in his plays.  A love scene is followed by a murder is followed by comic relief.  Police mysteries show a detective reaching a dead end  when the medical examiner phones to say he has discovered something.  We keep reading.

Good writers shift the point of view (POV) to end a scene.  Leo Toystoy starts Anna Karenina from the point of view of cavalier Stephen Oblonsky as he blames his affair with his children’s governess on his silly smile and his vibrant personality. Then the scene shirts to the head of his distraught wife, pregnant with her seventh child, who can see no option but to leave him.

Good writers use monologue or dialog to end a scene, and they write last words or last thoughts that are significant.  One character might admonish another to heed advice.  One character might rue the day he agreed to a blind date as he pushes a doorbell.  We turn the page to find out if he is right.

Good writers use surprise to end a scene. What if the guy ringing the doorbell is met by a huge dog, or a wise-cracking little sister, or his drop-dead beautiful date. . .and her big brother chaperone?

What all of these scene endings have in common is a question.  We, the readers or viewers, want to know something.  And so we keep reading.

Periodic and cumulative sentneces

Sentences come in two primary structures which can be described much like this:

  • A main clause starts early in the sentence, is interrupted by details,  and ends with a final important word or idea.
  • A main clause starts and ends early in the sentence, and then it is followed by details.

The first kind is called a periodic  or climatic sentence.  You can  spot it because it builds to a climax.  For example,

  • John Kennedy, in one of the tightest Presidential elections in US history, by a margin of 112,827 votes, won.
  • Six-month-old Ellis, sitting in his high chair, and watching Mom’s hand with its spoonful of carrots draw closer, clamped his two baby teeth shut.
  • Hillary hit a low, skipping, two-run grounder.

The second kind is called a cumulative sentence.   You can spot it because it mimics the way people talk, starting with a complete thought,and then adding details to embellish that thought.  For example,

  • John Kennedy won by 112,827 votes, in one of the tightest US Presidential elections.
  • Six-month-old Ellis clamped his two teeth shot as Mom, holding a spoonful of carrots, drew that spoon close to his mouth.
  • Hillary hit a two-run grounder, the ball skipping past the pitcher and through the legs of the second-base player.

Each is useful for different purposes.

  • The periodic sentence, because of the details which delay the ending, creates both grammatical and meaningful suspense.
  • As the words build to a point, the periodic sentence emphasizes a point embodied in the last few words of the sentence.
  • The periodic sentence releases information formally and logically, showing planning and control by the writer.
  • The cumulative sentence, on the other hand, sounds natural, mimicking the way that people talk.
  • A cumulative sentences sounds informal and conversational.  It adds a stream of consciousness feel to writing and works well in dialog.
  • A cumulative sentence elongates and elaborates on action.

Show writers how important first sentences are

The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook.  Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.

How can you show students how important first sentences are?

Here’s one way:

  • Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded.  Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.Some creative sentence options.
  • Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story.  No, I can’t offer any help.)  Let students muddle through how to approach the writing.  If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
  • Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
  • Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.

That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.

  • Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
  • Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine.  Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
  • Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
  • Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time.  Accept all responses.
  • Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
  • Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.

Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Why does “there is” and “there are” lead to poor writing?

Sentences which begin with “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be” put the subject after the verb. Most sentences, like the one you are reading now, name the subject first, and then tell what the subject does.  But when the sentence begins with “There is” or “There was” the subject is the third or fourth word, a weaker construction than the typical subject-verb construction.

“There is” and “there were” compound the weakness by using the weakest verb in the English language, “to be.” In a sentence like “There are two dogs,” we know nothing about the dogs except that they exist.  Even if we add a bit more information, such as “There are two dogs across the street,” we know little except that they exist across the street.

“There” like “It” (It’s raining out. It’s three o’clock) is a filler word, a word to get the sentence going without adding any information.  This construction is similar to a child starting a paragraph with, “I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.”  This child’s sentence offers a way for the child to start, but a poor way.  If the sentences which follow are about a dog, do you really need to start off by saying that you are going to tell us about your dog?

Sometimes the noun that follows “There is” is a noun which can be changed into a verb. When the sentence is rewritten, the sentence becomes more dynamic.  For example, take the sentence, “There was anger in the school about the school lunches.  “Anger” has no verb form, but “fume” or “seethe” are synonyms which could be used as the desired verb.  But now we have another problem.  Who fumes?  Who seethes about the lunches?

This problem leads to another shortcoming of “there is.” Many times “there is” creates a passive construction, one in which the reader doesn’t know who is acting.  Most of the time, the writer isn’t intentionally hiding who is doing the action in a sentence.  The writer is rather relying on an easy way to begin a sentence.  Why not come right out and say the actor, making the sentence more direct?

Another reason not to start a sentence with “There is” is that the beginnings of sentences receive the most focus. English speakers are accustomed to hearing the doer of the action named first.  (“John bounced the ball” not “The ball was bounced by John.”)  But when the beginning is a filler word like “There,” that opportunity to highlight the subject is squandered.  We focus on a meaningless word.

Analyze a piece of your own writing.  Circle all the “there is” and “there are” constructions whether they occur as the first words of sentences or the first words of subordinate clauses.  Now figure out how to eliminate them.

One exception:  When you write dialog, write the way people speak.  People say “there was” and “there will be” habitually.  On the other hand, if you want your speakers to sound dynamic, active, animated or enthusiastic, don’t put the words “there is” into their mouths.

How to end a narrative essay

One way to end a narrative is to look to the future.  When J.K. Rolling ended her final Harry Potter book, she skipped forward 20 years to show a new generation of students—Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s kids—heading off to Hogwarts School.  This ending of the series reminds readers of the beginning of the series when Harry, Ron and Hermione first headed to Hogwarts.  The author takes us full circle, back to the beginning, but not the same beginning.

boy writing on a window benchEven if your story is only a few pages long, you could look to the future.  The character could wake up hours after your story seems to end and think back—with fright?  with happiness?—at what happened earlier in your story.  Or if a dramatic rescue happens near the end of the story, you could jump forward an hour or two to let the characters describe how they feel, or to show them sleeping safely.

Another way to end a narrative is to stay in the present time of the stories but have a final scenes which leave the reader with an important emotion.  That emotion could come from a single image, the last image of the story.  Maybe your babysitter has worked really hard to care for a cranky toddler.  The babysitter leaves, exhausted and thinking she will never return.  But as she looks back, she sees the toddler looking out the window, smiling and waving.

Still another way to end is with action, as if, on to the next adventure.  Superman stories often end this way, with Superman solving a problem, and then flying off.  We assume he is off to solve another problem, but his real reason for leaving is that the story is done, and the writer needs to find a way to end it.

I have had some students end their stories with cliff-hangers,  scenes where something awful  happens, and we, the readers, of course want to know how the disaster is resolved.  But all we read is “To be continued.”  This is really not an ending but a way of pausing when a student is tired or out of ideas.  Don’t use this kind of ending or your audience will be disappointed.

If you have used dialog in your narrative, then ending with dialog (or the thoughts of a character) makes sense.  But the dialog should not be preachy or try to tie up loose ends.  Instead, use dialog to create a mood.  That mood becomes the lasting impression which the reader has.

Do you need to explain everything at the end?  No.  If the details are not important, let the reader guess at them.  That’s part of the fun for the reader.

Think about what mood or question you want your audience to dwell on as they finish your narrative.   Then figure out a good way to convey that idea.  If you do, your ending will be satisfying.

What writing skills are expected of fourth and fifth graders?

  • In fourth grade simple stories or essays are expected from most children. A topic sentence becomes the introduction, lots of facts become one or more body paragraphs, and a summing-it-all-up sentence becomes the conclusion.  Many students need help with the introductions, not knowing how to begin.  Almost all students need help with the conclusions.  They are expected to use transitions.  Students need to learn to plan their writing so that sequencing information isn’t a problem.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks fourth grade students to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information; introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose; provide reasons that are supported by facts and details; link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition);and provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
  • The CCSS also asks fourth graders to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly;
    introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension;
     develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic; link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because); use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic; and provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.”
  • As for narrative writing, the CCSS asks fourth graders to ” write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences;
    orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations; use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events; use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely; and provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • girl with pony tail on floor writingBy fifth grade, if the students have had enough practice, they should be able to write simple expository (informational) and persuasive essays and short narratives. They should write an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.