Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Talking Eggs – Dialogue

To use single inverted commas or not to use single inverted commas – that is the question?

The bananas were feeling a little fruity.
If there is one thing I hate about writers, it is dialogue. It drives me mad. Too many times have I read something and then gone back to the beginning to unpick who said what. Step forward: ‘The Lord of the Flies’. That book alone has caused me endless frustration, trying to work out who said what. I have always resorted to the students in the end: do you think it is Jack saying that? What do you think? “I don’t know, sir,” mutters a student. In the end, we decide it is Piggy after analysing the rhythm and lexis of the two word utterance. Mr Golding, couldn’t you just help us out with a few ‘said Jack’s or ‘said Ralph’s. I know you are showing the breakdown of rules by throwing the rules of speech out of the window, but remember the reader wants to know what is going on.

Speech in writing is a difficult art and it is one that I think popular writers can do well and less popular writers struggle with. Teaching students to use dialogue effectively is one of the hardest things I teach in English, because for most of the time most people do it badly. I have read umpteen stories of students using the following formula for story writing: 5% narrative; 85% dialogue; 10% sound effects. Like most things in English, do it sparingly and do it once, just to show the teacher or the examiner that you can demonstrate that particular skill.  The real ratio should be:  for every page of writing there should only be four lines of dialogue. Now, I know this is prescriptive, but it saves me from reading what are, basically, scripts.  I love a good bit of dialogue with the moving shifts and changes of mood, but I think it isn't always easy to create in the classroom.

The following are just some things I do when teaching dialogue:

The Introduction
I have included for you the sheet I often start with. Feel free to use it. Copy it on to Word and use the ‘Find and Replace’ function to replace the names with students in your class. I find that when I start with this they are engaged quite quickly. It has the novelty of having their names in it.


“I hate the word said,” bellowed Mr Curtis across the classroom.

You are going to have a go at varying how you describe speech in a piece of creative writing.
“It’s English again,” _________ Piggy.
“What?” _________ Ralph.
“I said: it’s English again,” _________ Piggy.
“Yeah,” _________ Ralph.
“What do you think we will be doing?” _________ Piggy.
“More poetry,” _________ Ralph.
“Wouldn’t it be good if we had some drama?” _________ Piggy.
“Yeah, that would be brilliant,” _________ Ralph.
“I’d love to see Katie acting,” _________  Piggy.                                                                                                                   
“What have we got next?” _________ Ralph.
“Science!” _________ Piggy.
“Oh no. I wish we had double English rather than Science,” _________ Ralph.
“Quick, he’s looking this way,” _________ Piggy.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” _________ Ralph.

What other words could I use instead of said?


What are the rules of writing speech?

Reducing a conversation
I love this simple, but effective idea. I have used it several times when looking at ‘Spoken Language’, as it is helpful when looking at the rules of speech. Anyway, I give students a conversation like the one below on a sheet of A3. They have to reduce it to 5 lines of dialogue by scribbling out the rest of the lines. After doing this they tend to avoid pages and pages of phatic talk and focus on plot driven dialogue.

 “Hello,” said Tom.
“Hello,” replied Jane.
“How are you?”
“I am fine, thanks. And you?”
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing much. You?”
“Been to the shops.”
“Really, what shops?”
“Just Tescos.”
“Did you buy anything nice?”
“Not much. Have you heard the news?”
“The news.”
“No. What news?”
“There’s been a robbery.”
“Never. I can’t believe it.”
“There was glass everywhere. It was terrible. Really scary.” 
“Oh, the poor people. How will they cope?”
“Look there’s Jenny.”
“Do you think she’s seen us?”
“What are you up to today?”
“Some shopping.”
“Again that is the third time this week.”
“What can I say?”
“You and your expensive tastes.”
“Right, when shall we see each other again.”
“Next Tuesday?”
“Nah, I am staying in a posh spa then.”
“No, having my hair cut then.”
“Saturday sounds good.”

I know that it will not win any awards for writing, but it does help students to identify what is the important piece of dialogue. Sometimes, students get trapped in the social niceties of a conversation and they neglect the actual purpose of the dialogue: to move the plot on.


Implying rather than saying
I am sorry, but I don’t hide the fact that I am a massive ‘Doctor Who’. It is my escapism from a world of comma splices, homophones and rushed writing. The fantastic Russell T. Davies once said that the best dialogue was dialogue that didn’t state the obvious. He described that he learnt on one show that two people admitting love was best insinuated, rather than declared.  Therefore, I have adapted this idea to a lesson.
Students are given a scenario and they have to write a specific conversation without using specific words. Below is an example of the sheets I have produced for them. At the start, I get them to decide what words are too obvious for a conversation. These they write down in a box and can’t use at all in their writing.

Writing effective dialogue

To write effective dialogue in a story, you need to imply or suggest things. Most speech in television dramas is complex and subtle.


Confessing a murder.


Words you cannot use:

 murder , death , body, done it, killed



"I've got something to say," he mumbled.
"What? Stop joking around," she said.
"I... this is hard to say, but it was me."
"I don't know what you mean."
"He was just walked into the house and... yeah. That was it."
"You don't mean that you?"
"Yes, I mean that."
"But, you were with Tim in the pub. You told me."

Question / Answer / Response
This harks back to my A-level language days. Good old Grice and his maxims. He’s got some good maxims. One of the few chaps I know with maxims. Anyway, this is something that I came up with when teaching students to write scripts. At the time, they were coming up with some unconvincing dialogue. It was flat and there was very little variation. That’s when I remembered the question / answer / response pattern of conversation.  Next lesson, we had a little starter based on it:

Imagine there are two people walking through some woods. They are having a conversation. Each time they speak, they answer with a question, an answer to the question or a response to the answer.

As a class, we created this conversation. Each student took it in turns to say one line of conversation. However, they followed the question, answer and response pattern. After a while they picked up the rhythm of the speech pattern, and we had some interesting and, occasionally, effective  conversations.  
Student 1: Are we we lost?
Student 2:  I dunno.
Student 3:  I think we are.
Student 4:  Did you hear that?
Student 5:  No.


Eggs. Eggs. Eggs.

“Eggbert said it was a hot tub!” screamed Eggie.
"I think I am going to be sick; I can see his insides." 
"I think Eggbert has cracked," moaned Egggene.
I am not working for Edwina Currie, honestly. Looking for inspiration for a lesson, I found a picture of some eggs with eyes on. That became one of my favourite pieces of homework with Year 7. Each student had to take two photographs of some eggs (feel free to change the item); the pictures, however, must have told a story. What followed were pictures of eggs winning medals, dying, getting married and many other creative things. It was ‘such fun’ as Miranda’s mother would say. The students loved it and it got them enthused, even if a few eggs were wasted in the cause.

When we had printed all the pictures out, each student wrote 6 lines of dialogue for their pictures. It created more fun as they tried to fit puns in the dialogue and the names. It was eggciting stuff.

And finally…
As far as I know, the single and double inverted comma thing is a question of style. Personally, I prefer the double inverted commas, as they help to distinguish speech from quotes and titles. To finish off, I think I will share one of those strange conversations that I always find myself in.

“He was an English teacher, you know. Yeah. Married this woman, who was fairly young. Twenty something, I think. Anyway, he was having an affair,” whispered one of the mature members of the department.
“Really?” gasped an NQT round the table in the staffroom.
“Well, he got fed up with his wife. I don’t know why. But, and this is a big one, he decided that he wanted to marry the woman he was having an affair with. He then killed the wife and kept her body in the freezer.”
I walk in and sit down at the table with the staff aghast at the macabre tale being spun.
“Yeah, I worked with him while this was going on. You couldn’t tell what was really happening. No hints. All the time he was working, he had his wife in the freezer. Arrested him, they did. In for life. Seemed such a nice chap really. Quiet and friendly – bit like Chris here.”
The rest of the staff stopped eating and looked at me. Eyes protruded from sockets. Mouths opened. Silence.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Gwen for proofreading,

P.S. I will blog later this week with some of my ideas about ‘Literacy across the curriculum’.



  1. Some brilliant tips here. Have you ever taught 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' by Roddy Doyle? Just teaching it now to my year 11s. He gives no help at all with the dialogue (who's speaking etc) and it's all done with dashes. Put it this way, I'm reading quite a lot of it TO them or we'd still be reading it in 2015.

  2. Thanks. No, I have not had the pleasure. Will try to read it at some point.



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