Category Archives: dialog in writing

How to show students how to incorporate backstory into action

I would find a well-known story—fairy tales are perfect—which begin with backstory.  Either give each student in the class a copy or show a copy on the overhead projector.  For example, here is a version of a famous fairy tale:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

The king gave a feast so grand that the likes of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

But there came into the hall a mean old fairy who had not been invited. She had fled the kingdom in anger fifty years before and had not been seen since.

The evil fairy’s turn came to give a gift to the baby. Shaking her head spitefully, she said, “When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!”

Ask the students to read the fairy tale opening several times, and then identify what you mean by backstory–the king and queen being sad they had no children, the bells ringing, the feast, the fairies invited, the old fairy not invited.  Explain that together you are going to rewrite this beginning in such a way that these events are written into the action.  Suggest that the place to begin the action is where the mean fairy is about to cast a spell on the infant.  Ask the class for ideas how to begin.

If this is the first time you have done this with a group of students, you might not get a response.  Or you might get a response that is more backstory.  So you might need to model how to approach this problem.  You might think aloud how you would write this story opener, accepting some of your own ideas and rejecting others.  Let the students hear how you would go about writing a more interesting beginning.

You could say and write,

Once upon a time, a mean fairy strode into a king’s and queen’s ballroom, glaring at the invited guests until the royal court, the king, the queen, and the tiny baby princess grew still.  Even the castle bells stopped ringing.

Ask students if they recognize that his story is a fairy tale.  Ask how they know.  These questions keep them involved.  Now continue thinking and writing aloud.

“Since you have waited 17 years for a daughter,” the mean fairy said, staring at the king and queen, “I will protect the princess for 17 years.”  The king and queen rose to their feet and clapped, as did the other fairies and guests.  Even the baby kicked her tiny feet in approval.

Explain to the students that you have just set up the king, queen and royal court–as well as the readers–for what will happen next.

But the mean fairy was not finished.  “On your 17th birthday,” she said, leaning over the baby’s cradle, and touching a finger of the infant, “you shall prick this finger on a spinning wheel.”  She turned around to look at the king and queen before she turned back to the baby.  “And you shall die!”

Next, ask the students to compare the two fairy tale openings, side by side if you can.  Point out that some of the backstory was not told in the second version, but the important parts were.  More importantly, the second version starts with action, with someone doing something. We learn so much from the dialog of the mean fairy:  that there is a king and queen who have wanted a child for a long time, that their longed-for baby is a girl, and that on her 17th birthday she will prick her finger and die because of a spell by the evil fairy.  Aren’t those the essential parts of the backstory in the original version?  And isn’t the longer quote of the mean fairy in the second version more scary and exciting than telling the information as backstory, as in the first version?

When you have worked through this process with one fairy tale, choose another, and another, and another.  Each time rewrite the fairy tale aloud with the students, asking for their input as they grow more capable of writing this way.  Then, divide the class into small groups, and let each group attempt to rewrite a fairy tale opening.  Meanwhile, you circulate to offer help, suggestions or praise.  Ask students to volunteer to read their openings aloud and to talk about how they wrote, explaining their problems and solutions.

Finally, ask students to write their own fairy tale opening, incorporating background information into the action.  Let students read their works aloud.

For all of these exercises, students needn’t write the whole fairy tale.  What you are teaching is how to write better narrative openings, so writing the opening is enough.

 

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

How to end a scene with style

Some student writers reach an exhaustion point when writing a narrative.  They are too tired to continue.  They want to stop—mid-sentence, if I’d let them—and write “To be continued,” as if that would solve their problem.

“You can do better than that,” I tell them, and together we brainstorm better breaks which will lure readers back to the next section of their narratives.

Point of view shifts. If all the action has been told from one character’s perspective, add a final sentence to show that someone else is watching.  “And so Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother goodbye, waved and skipped through the dark forest, unaware that a big, bad wolf was watching and licking his lips.”  When the student resumes writing this piece, it can be from the wolf’s point of view.

To use a cliffhanger effectively, something must happen just before the end of the chapter, something that leaves the reader wondering.  “Mia crumpled up the test paper with the low grade and pouted.  She had studied so hard for that test.  She had—She felt a tap on her elbow from Ben, who sat behind her.  He passed his cell phone out of sight of their teacher, Mrs. Miller.  Mia read the text message.  “Are you all right?  For god’s sake, tell me you’re all right!”

Traveling or going to sleep. A scene can easily end with a character getting in the back seat of the car or on a spaceship.  When the next scene starts, the character can have arrived at her destination, a new location.  The actual traveling can be skipped over.  Or a character can go to bed for the night or take a nap, and when he awakens, a new scene begins without any explanation of how he slept or what he dreamed about.

Dialog.  If Hermione says to Harry Potter, “You better be extra careful, Harry,” and the scene ends, we, the readers, are led to believe Hermione’s words are important.  We suspect Harry will find himself in trouble soon.  For dialog to be an effective scene ender, the dialog needs to seem significant.  If one character says, “Bye,” and the other character says, “Bye,” that is not significant.

Foreshadowing.  A toddler is running around willy-nilly, and nearby a pregnant woman puts her hand on her abdomen, feeling an active baby kicking.  She smiles.  Or Cinderella hops into the carriage that will take her to the ball when one of her slippers falls off.  She laughs and slips it back on, waving to her fairy godmother.

None of these scene endings takes many words, just a sentence or two.  But they are far more elegant than slapping “To be continued” at the end of a sentence in the middle of a thought.  With a good scene ending, the writer lures the reader back.  The reader wants to continue reading.

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.