Category Archives: dialog in writing

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.


Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.

Can sentences start with “because”? My son’s teacher says no.

“Because” is a word that is often misused in writing.  “Because” is a connecting word, connecting an independent clause with a dependent clause in a sentence.  If you use it, you must connect two ideas.  For example,

child writing in sleeping bag

I went to bed because I was tired.

“I went to bed” is the independent clause.  “Because I was tired” is the dependent clause.  “Because” is the connecting word.

Teachers tell students that they cannot start a sentence with “because.”  Actually, they can, if they connect the “because” clause to an independent clause.  For example,

Because I was tired, I went to bed.   (This is a perfectly good sentence.)

The problem is that many kids forget to add the independent clause.  Let’s look at three problems and how to solve them.

1.  Suppose a reading question asks you to tell why the dinosaurs died. You write, “Because a meteor hit the earth.”  This is a good fact but bad grammar.  “Because a meteor hit the earth” is not a sentence.  It is part of a sentence.  You need to add an independent clause to make it a complete sentence.  If you write, “Because a meteor hit the earth, the dinosaurs died,” now you have a sentence.

2.  If you find yourself starting what you think are sentences with the word “because,” there is an easy way to fix those mistakes. Just cross out the word “Because” and put a capital letter on the next word.

Why did Harry Potter go to Hogwarts School?

Because he wanted to be a wizard.  (Cross out Because and capitalize He.)

3.  Cause and Because are not the same thing. In writing, you cannot use “cause” if you mean “because.”  Cause is a verb or a noun.  Because is a subordinate conjunction (a connecting word.)

I went home cause I felt sick.  Wrong.  I went home because I felt sick.  Correct.

If you are writing dialog, write the way people speak even if their grammar is wrong.  Write ’cause when the speaker says “cause” meaning because.  The apostrophe indicates some letters are missing.