Chit-chat. Blabber. Spilling the beans. Section 13 of Spilling Ink is dedicated to dialogue. It's a fabulous chapter that gives us handy advice about how to bring our characters to life through the savvy use of it.
Some of the advice might even directly contradict what you have taught your students about it. For example, Ms. Mazer asserts that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the word said. Now if you are anything like me, you tell your students that the word said is dead and give them a list of 100 synonyms for it. Ms. Mazer touts said as an honest, workmanlike word. She tells us never to be ashamed to use it. I think she wants us to be more confident as writers. Maybe we don't need to find a flowery synonym when a good old stand-by will work just as well, if not better. I've never really thought of it that way, I guess. I think we should still teach our elementary students to vary their word choice. Then, when they mature in their writing, we can help them become more discerning when they pick their words. In the meantime, though, we need to work on becoming more discerning ourselves. (Actually, I am just speaking for myself. There is a lot in this section I need to work on!)
This chapter is chock-full of great tips, but one other one that stuck out to me is to use action instead of a tag line when you want to reinforce what your character is saying with a visual. For instance:
"I don't know who ate the last scoop of Moose Tracks, Mom." Emily looked at her brother and then down at the floor.
I didn't even have to decide if I should use the word said or not! The fact that Emily looked at her brother and then down at the floor indicates to me that she may indeed know something about the missing Moose Tracks. Neat, huh? When I wrote it the first time, I wrote that Emily looked nervously at her brother. I decided I should show that she was nervous instead of tell. So I took out the adverb and wrote that she looked at her brother and then at the floor. (Being stingy with the adverbs, in the tag lines in particular, is another lesson learned from this chapter.) This would be a very worthwhile mini lesson for the latter part of the year.
One of the dares is to write a scene in which one character tries to tell another character something, but can't. It says to think of ways for the character to hint at the topic and show body language to help reveal the character's secret thoughts. I'll have a go at it, I guess!
"Hey, JD! Did you pick up the mac and cheese and hot dogs at the Walmart like I asked you?" Grandma was sunken down in the sweet spot of the couch, watching her "stories". Her cigarette burned in the ashtray on the end table. She'd had that ashtray as long as I can remember. I made it for her when I was in elementary school.
I opened my mouth to tell her the truth, but she interrupted. "I hope you didn't get generic. You know how I love that Kraft macaroni and cheese. That little blue box is always a sight for my sore eyes."
"I was thinking we could have something a little different tonight." I went straight to the kitchen and stashed the tofu in the fridge and the whole wheat pasta back in the depths of the pantry.
"What do you mean? We always have hot dogs and mac and cheese on Tuesdays! If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's what I say." Grandma gave a little chuckle.
"Mrs. Douglas has been teaching us about nutrition and health and stuff. She says we ought not be eatin' hot dogs. She said we don't even want to know what's in them!" I paced in the hallway, waiting for the commercial, when Grandma would reply. This gave me time to think of what I was going to say next.
"Hot dogs haven't hurt me none all these years. That youngin' down there at the high school doesn't need to be filling your head with such big city foolishness."
I sat down next to her and put my head on her pointy little shoulder. "Grandma, I would love to cook you something different tonight-- something better. Think of it as a treat. Let's wake those sleepy taste buds up a little! I promise you won't miss those hot dogs at all! What do ya say?" I kissed her leathery cheek and held my breath as I waited for her to respond.
Whew! That's all I've got in me tonight. (I reiterate-- this is hard!) This section is one of the best so far. I think I can tweak most of the ideas into mini lessons. It just keeps getting better and better. Have you gotten your copy yet?