Dialogue is the life blood of any story. It brings the characters to life, moves the action forward and reveals important elements of the story and the characters. If used properly, it can also set the mood, create tension or increase the emotional drama of a scene without having to tell the reader that the characters are feeling this way. Dialogue draws readers into a story. However, dialogue can also be the hardest thing to write. Giving students exercises that focus on improving dialogue can help them strengthen their overall creative writing skills.
Ask Them to Role Play
Hearing dialogue out loud can help students recognize what's working and what isn't. Perhaps they can identify lines that don't sound natural or that don't fit the character. Hearing the dialogue out loud will help them realize that the emotional weight they thought they had written into the lines just isn't there. Pair students together and ask them to act out the dialogue in a story or scene that one of them has written. When they are finished, they can discuss what worked for the dialogue and what didn't. Then they can trade off and role play the other student's work. Role playing is also a good activity for students when they are in the writing process and are feeling stuck. If they don't know where to take the dialogue, improvising during role play can help them imagine how a scene would play out and then write lines that sound natural and work for the story.
Assign Collaborative Dialogue Writing
Writing with a partner can push students outside of their comfort zone in their writing and show them new techniques that may work for their writing. The National Writing Project recommends asking students to partner up, then assign a plot, a couple of characters, or the general guidelines for a story idea or scene. Students then collaborate on creating a story or a scene. This can be either an in-class activity or a take-home activity. Students influence each other with their individual approaches to the story, helping each other learn new ways to tackle the material, flesh out characters or move a plot forward.
Ask Them to Create Dialogue from Conversations
Listening to actual conversation helps students make their dialogue more realistic and also understand the narrative needs of dialogue. Ask students to transcribe a conversation they hear at home, in the classroom or in a public place, like a bookstore or coffee shop. Tell them to change the names so as not to identify the people in the conversation. Note the elements that make the "dialogue" seem natural, such as verbal pauses like "uh" and "um," dialect like a Southern drawl or a Boston accent, and idiomatic phrases like "hotter than the Georgia asphalt." Then turn the discussion to how this transcribed dialogue is not as effective as narrative dialogue. Talk about how natural conversation can have boring lulls and does not always progress in an interesting way. Narrative dialogue has to both sound natural and build up the story and the characters.
Challenge Students to Write a Story Based on Dialogue
Dialogue is strong enough to carry a story if it's done right. Challenge students to write a story that is based entirely on dialogue -- with no descriptions, dialogue tags or even character names. All of the story information should be drawn from what the characters are saying, including the plot, who the characters are, and what the characters are feeling. The exercise can help students learn how to make their dialogue do double duty, making sure that each line tells the reader more about the characters and the story.
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