Atomic Essay #4: crafting dialogue

I don't know much Stephen King, having only read The Shining of his oeuvre, but since I read his On Writing earlier this year, I've been thinking about his simple idea of the writer's toolbox.

Atomic Essay #4: crafting dialogue
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I don't know much Stephen King, having only read The Shining of his oeuvre, but since I read his On Writing earlier this year, I've been thinking about his simple idea of the writer's toolbox. This has colluded with my thinking on and experience with modelling in English: I've had the greatest success teaching writing when I've modelled specific aspects of the craft to my students. If we want students to have tools in their toolbox, we need to teach them what the tools are model how they could be used. Over time, they learn what tools to use and when to use them.

Students, I have found, struggle particularly with dialogue. A lot of it is functional, transactional. I teach students the following two rules for dialogue:

  1. Dialogue must reveal an aspect of character, or
  2. Dialogue must advance the plot.

One might find this reductive, but I've found it a useful starting point when unpicking the threads of poor writing habits. I then model dialogue in episodic fragments. I've been inspired by Jennifer Webb's excellent Teach Like a Writer, so before this I've created my own model character who can be used in a variety of stories and situations. I then put the character in a number of situations in which dialogue could be used to reveal character or advance plot.

I've enjoyed using this model: I call it the 'Non-Answer':

I think something like this helps students to see what we mean by 'writer's craft'. The idea is simple: have one character speak (preferably question) the other, who doesn't reply. That is, they don't respond verbally. They might, however, respond in a way that's physically significant, be that something obvious or something subtle. Perhaps one could use it to reveal a tic. The mute character can also contribute internally – one can use free-indirect discourse, for example, to show the inner workings of a character's psyche.

In my model, which sees a traumatised ex-soldier in a psychiatrist's office, I use the Non-Answer to communicate the damage that's been done to the ex-soldier. I dip in and out of his psyche, giving his perspective, which is coloured by the turmoil in his mind. The trick here is to get students to notice the counterpoint and contrast in the dialogue: the sanitised, questioning calm of the psychiatrist who, sure of her role, is able to speak out loud, and the cynical imagery from the soldier's perspective, which corrupts everything it experiences. The questions the psychiatrist asks demand an answer; that they don't paints the soldier as defiant on the surface, but beneath it deeply vulnerable. Students can see how the two 'voices' are crafted in contrast to one another, but also that the choice to make the soldier not reply is a crafting choice itself.

It's worth taking a look at Pat Barker's Regeneration for an effective example of 'Non-Answer', in which the mute and shell-shocked Billy Prior answers his doctor via scrawled notes. His doctor, instead of responding to Prior's handwritten messages, corrects Prior's spelling. There's much implied as a result by Barker about power dynamics (doctor vs soldier, upper-class vs lower-class), attitudes to masculinity and attitudes to mental health, and that's just scratching below the surface.

This is why it's an effective tool for students – it allows them to use their writing not just to tell a story, but to explore power dynamics between characters and – therefore, perhaps – in the wider world. I don't think students should force this – there's nothing wrong with the raw and simple joy of a well-told story – but students should, I think, be aware that their writing can, should it come, explore the world however they'd like.

Through modelling, the teacher can show students where such structures could be used in their own writing. There are plenty of others, about which I'll likely write in the near future. For now, I think that if we want students to write well we need to think about all the different tools we'd like them to use, and model them in a granular fashion. Doing this live in the classroom is how I find it works best; I can then explain to students exactly what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. You can read more about my modelling processes here, and more ideas about teaching writing here.