How to Make Dialogue Sound Natural–Tip #3: Easy on the Dialogue Tags

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st patricks day bulletin board ideas for ell esl students

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In the past, I’ve found that seventh graders are fairly new to story writing. Granted, earlier grades had them create imaginary pioneer diary entries and things like that. So they understand plot and characters to some degree.

However when the kids get to me, they’ve really only used quotation marks in workbook assignments for the most part. During the elementary school years, the curriculum is so focused on math and reading, that teachers really don’t have time to let kids write fictional stories for an extensive period of time.

I do, however.

And what I find is that my seventh graders either write dialogue that has no tags whatsoever:

“Why do we have to wear green on March 17th?”

“That was the day Christianity came to Ireland, my dear.”

“Why green, though? Why not orange or purple?”

“Ireland is called ‘The Emerald Isle,’ and an emerald is a green stone.”

“Oh.”

 

Or they only use one type of dialogue tag throughout the entire story:

“Why do we have to wear green on March 17th?” Elizabeth said.

“That was the day Christianity came to Ireland, my dear,” the ghost of Saint Patrick said.

“Why green, though? Why not orange or purple?” Elizabeth said.

“Ireland is called ‘The Emerald Isle,’ and an emerald is a green stone,” the ghost of Saint Patrick said.

“Oh,” Elizabeth said.

 

Therefore, English teachers like me force their students to use synonyms for said, in an attempt to break free of the monotony. However this snowballs into a whole new problem… “SAID-isms”:

“Why do we have to wear green on March 17th?” Elizabeth questioned.

“That was the day Christianity came to Ireland, my dear,” the ghost of Saint Patrick explained.

“Why green, though? Why not orange or purple?” Elizabeth queried.

“Ireland is called ‘The Emerald Isle,’ and an emerald is a green stone,” the ghost of Saint Patrick uttered.

“Oh,” Elizabeth groaned.

Why is Elizabeth groaning? Doesn’t she like green? => These are the kinds of questions the reader asks herself as she reads through all the queries and groans and explanations and utterances. But you don’t want your reader bogged down with thoughts like that.

 

A seasoned writer is able to blend dialogue with descriptive elements, leaving dialogue free of tags whenever they’re not necessary, creating a section of dialogue that keeps the reader captivated without causing the reader to wonder what’s up with all the SAID-isms. But it’s tricky to reach that balance.

It helps to read books. As you read, pay attention to how the author uses dialogue tags (or doesn’t). Note the way they blend description with dialogue, and when you find yourself captivated by the dialogue in a story, go back and study it. Ask yourself, “What made this part of the book so amazing?”

Next week I’ll  address problems with blending dialogue and description, and that will be the last post in this “How to Make Dialogue Sound Natural” series.

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