Writing strong dialogue is challenging for many secondary students, yet it’s an essential component of any narrative writing unit. Luckily, this post is dedicated to showing you how to make the most of your next dialogue lesson by engaging students with short stories.
If you’re anything like me (and my students), you get excited when it’s time to take a break from writing essays and dive into narrative writing instead. While there are plenty of exciting and engaging ways to teach analytical writing, switching it up with something that exercises a little more creativity is refreshing.
Whether you’re gearing up to teach personal narratives, creative writing, or anything in between, incorporating a lesson on dialogue is a must. Trust me, nothing ruins a story like forced, meaningless, or downright cringe-worthy dialogue. Students shouldn’t haphazardly throw conversations between characters into a narrative. Instead, they should serve a purpose.
The reality is that many students struggle to write strong, meaningful dialogue simply because they don’t know how. That, my teacher friend, is where short stories come to the rescue. By the end of this post, you’ll understand why short stories are a powerful tool for teaching dialogue, have a list of 5 stories that make for great mentor texts, and learn some quick tips to help you as you plan your next lesson.
As with teaching any literary element, providing students with an array of examples is imperative when introducing them to dialogue. After all, this conversational exchange can take many forms and is used by authors for various purposes, including:
- Bringing a story to life
- Adding or enhancing characterization
- Engaging readers
- Moving a plotline forward
- Building tension and conflict
- Emphasizing or illustrating a theme
- Making a scene feel real and relatable
… the list goes on. When used well, dialogue is a powerful asset to any story.
Sure, you can opt to simply explain this to students. You can also decide to show them various standalone examples. However, sharing examples of meaningful dialogue in full context is far more effective. Luckily, short stories are concise enough to allow students to experience and explore dialogue in various cases and contexts.
As you work through each example, take time to have students reflect on the author’s use of dialogue. Give students the time to analyze the dialogue before engaging in a discussion where you can unpack the purpose of this vital literary element.
Consider asking students the following questions to help guide their analysis:
- Who is involved in the dialogue? What are they saying?
- What purpose does the dialogue serve?
- How does the dialogue impact your experience as a reader?
- What does it reveal about the characters or the situation?
- How does the dialogue impact the pace and plot?
- Does it illustrate the story’s theme? If so, how?
Now that I’ve convinced you to use short stories as your mentor text, it’s time I reveal 5 of my favorite stories to use when teaching dialogue. The following stories vary in topic and length, ensuring you can find at least one title perfect for sharing with your students. However, when it comes to teaching dialogue, I recommend exposing students to multiple examples before having them incorporate dialogue into their own narrative writing.
“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes is a quick yet highly effective short story when teaching dialogue, considering at least half of the story is a conversation between the two characters. The story follows a young boy named Roger and his surprising interaction with Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, the woman whose purse he attempts to steal. Instead of turning him into the police after catching Roger in his act of thievery, Mrs. Jones offers kindness, compassion, and care, teaching him a valuable life lesson.
Have students explore how Hughes uses the dialogue to reveal the characterization of both Roger and Mrs. Jones. Furthermore, he skillfully weaves in insightful background information that helps to explain Mrs. Jones’ handling of the situation. By unpacking the conversation, students can develop a stronger understanding of each character, including their motivations throughout the story.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a surprisingly dark and twisted short story set in a small (seemingly) idyllic town where the residents prepare for their annual lottery. Upon closer look, what appears as small talk among people gathering in the town square for the lottery is hiding the sinister truth: someone is about to die. The casual dialogue quickly turns frantic as Tessie, the lottery winner, tries to stop her fate of getting stoned to death by her friends, family, and neighbors.
While students are always shocked upon realizing the fate of the lottery winner, plenty of clues are sprinkled throughout the character’s conversations leading up to the big reveal. Therefore, not only does the dialogue help the plot unfold, but it also helps illustrate the story’s theme of the dangers of blind conformity and mob mentality. Have students go back through the story and look for clues about the twisted tradition, asking them how Jackson “hid” the truth until the story’s climax.
Okay, this is technically a screenplay for an episode of The Twilight Zone rather than a short story. However, thanks to the narration and plethora of stage directions noted throughout, it can be read as a short story. It is perfect for helping students understand how dialogue can reveal characterization, move a plot forward, and help build a theme. The story explores the themes of paranoia and fear, and they can take control of people and, ultimately, lead to chaos. Set in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, residents of Maple Street let suspicion take over as they struggle to find a reasonable explanation for a mysterious event on their street.
As the dialogue reveals, the residents quickly turn against each other, fearing that extraterrestrial monsters are among them. Suddenly, anyone could be a suspect. Ultimately, through their (rather hostile) conversions, the characters show just how easily fear and distrust can wreak havoc on a community. As the narrator reveals at the end, the real monsters on Maple Street are, ironically, the people themselves. Challenge students to back up the narrator’s closing remarks with supporting dialogue. (Trust me, there’s plenty for them to work with.)
Junius Edwards’ work primarily focused on the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and “Liars Don’t Qualify” is no exception. However, Edwards’ skillful use of dialogue makes this piece stand out. Throughout the story, the conversation between the three characters becomes Edwards’ primary vehicle for his commentary on the racial disparities, discrimination, and dehumanization experienced by black people in the American South. The story follows Will Harris, a black man, as he attempts to register to vote. After an extensive (and glaringly prejudiced) interview process, Harris is ultimately denied his right to vote.
Edwards’ use of dialogue throughout “Liars Don’t Qualify” serves as a powerful tool to convey the pervasive racial tension in the American South during the late 50s and early 60s. Students never have a problem assigning a race to each character despite the story never once explicitly stating which characters are black versus white. Instead, Edwards lets the characters’ words and actions tell the bigger story here. There is plenty for students to unpack, as the story is told primarily through uninterrupted dialogue, making it both a fast-moving and highly engaging read.
While this is one of the shorter stories on the list, it is just as effective for teaching dialogue. As with several of the other mentor texts, this short story unfolds primarily through a conversation between characters on a plane. Carole, a young girl, is seated next to Henry and Betty Norton, a white couple who can’t seem to accept or comprehend her biracial status. What first seems like friendly small talk quickly becomes uncomfortable and incessant questioning about the young girl’s race. Ultimately, a frustrated Henry blurts out the question that gives the story its title, “So what are you anyway?” leaving Carole extremely uncomfortable, confused, and upset.
Hill’s use of dialogue is an excellent example of how authors can use dialogue to reveal characterization and build tension throughout a story. While there is some narration here and there, students primarily experience the story through the conversation. As a result, students must rely on making inferences and reading between the lines to decode the story’s themes and, ultimately, Hill’s commentary on the social construction of racial identity.
Having the right texts is only part of it. Of course, you also need to know how to use them for effective teaching. Here are some of the best tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years teaching dialogue in secondary ELA:
- Expose students to a variety of examples and contexts
- Engage students in fun and creative dialogue activities
- Want to steal one of my favorites? Challenge students to turn a block of narrative text into a dialogue or have them write a series of dialogue inspired by an image.
- Review writing conventions and dialogue tags
- Encourage students to use strong verbs (“said” is boring)
- Show both good and bad dialogue examples, discussing the differences
- Challenge students to reflect on how dialogue impacts the reader’s experience
- Give students space to practice, offering guidance and feedback as needed
There you have it, my teacher friend! I hope you found this post helpful as you prepare to teach your students about the importance and power of quality dialogue. Whether you ultimately use my favorite titles to introduce this concept or not, remember this: short stories serve as condensed containers for students to learn, explore, and analyze specific literary elements. Thanks to their focused nature, students can dive into the text, dissecting and understanding dialogue dynamics, character interactions, and essential subtext without getting lost in a longer narrative.
After you use those stories to teach the power of conversations among characters, consider reusing them to teach other elements like plot, setting, character, and point of view. They are also the perfect teaching tool for literary devices such as foreshadowing or irony, among many others.
That’s all for now! As always, if you have any comments, questions, or additional ideas to toss out there about teaching dialogue, leave a comment below!