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Enough 'said'

There's more to writing dialogue than putting speech marks around words, says Crispin Andrews

Children's attempts at writing dialogue can end up looking like little more than a list of sentences. Effectively used, however, dialogue is a powerful tool for carrying a story forward. I use the following texts, taken from Kamini Khanduri's Tales of the Trojan War (Usborne, pound;5.99), to work with a class and show how speech can be turned into effective, narrative dialogue.

Using the first extract (right), I ask children to fill in the punctuation marks, before adding "said" and the speaker's name. We discuss how dialogue by itself doesn't always give much of a clue about what is going on and if pupils can work out what is happening from this text alone. Using "said" too often can be repetitive and boring, so we brainstorm a list of alternatives, appropriate for an angry Hector who disapproves of his brother Paris not going into battle.

Next we compare the two extracts. We discuss the contrast in terms of style, precision and pace, and look at how the author's descriptive sentences and dialogue moves the story along. Words and phrases such as "gasped", "announced" or "said briskly" are good alternatives to "said", and paint a picture for the reader.

Dialogue is a key part of the passage as it carries the story forward, but it doesn't have the same impact without the description, action and use of vocabulary. I highlight sentences such as "the sticky juice dribbled down his chin and dripped on to the front of his tunic" and those that describe the actions of characters. We discuss how some stand-alone: "Paris leaped to his feet, knocking the basket of grapes to the floor", while others - "'How's the battle going?' asked Helen, who was sitting on a stool busily spinning wool" - are part of a sentence containing dialogue.

The author hasn't completely abandoned simple phrases, but when they are used with the other techniques the quality of the overall narrative is dramatically enhanced.

I then get the pupils to rewrite the second extract using their own dialogue and alternatives to "said", and using different examples to those of the author.

Crispin Andrews is a primary school teacher

Dialogue without punctuationnarrative

I see you're much too busy to fight for your city said Hector. I'd have thought that the man who caused this war would be the first on the battlefield.

Paris said I was just on my way.

How's the battle going said Helen.

All right thanks said Hector. But it would help if all our soldiers were fighting.

You go on ahead he said. I'll catch up with you.

No Hector said. You'll come with me. Now. I'm ready he said.

About time too said Hector.

The sticky juice dribbled down the chin of Paris and dripped on to the front of his tunic. "I see you're much too busy to fight for your city," said Hector, walking in. "I'd have thought that the man who caused this war would be first on the battlefield."

Paris leaped to his feet, knocking the basket of grapes on to the floor.

"Hector!" he gasped. "I was just on my way."

Hector snorted.

"How's the battle going?" asked Helen who was sitting on a stool, busily spinning wool.

"All right thanks," said Hector briskly. "But it would help if all our soldiers were fighting," he added, glaring angrily at his brother.

Paris was fumbling with the fastenings on his breastplate.

"You go on ahead, he said. "I'll catch up with you."

"No," Hector insisted sternly. "You'll come with me. Now!"

A few minutes later, Paris kissed Helen, slung his shield over his shoulder and grabbed his spear. "I'm ready!" he announced.

"About time too," muttered Hector impatiently.

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