Fiction and the Conventions of Dialogue

Jack Sloan Mississippi Stranger Agnes M. Hagen adult reader

That sounds lofty, doesn't it? "The Conventions of Dialogue" Sounds all Greek and philosophical.

I'm afraid I'm going to tell a rather more humble story here.

It was the late morning lull, and, apropos of nothing, I interrupted everyone's math by writing four or five unpunctuated sentences on the white board.

i grabbed the phone get me the chief i said a new voice came on the line is that you chief i asked i'm down at the courthouse mayor jones and the other mayors want to talk to you

We spent about 20 minutes talking through it. Typically, the learners found it easy to parse out complete sentences, but struggled with the use of quotations marks and other conventions specific to dialogue.

After, I handed around some copies of the Jack Sloan western Mississippi Stranger (by Agnes M. Hagen). I chose it because it was at a low-enough reading level to be accessible to everyone in the room at that time. We opened to a page with a bit of dialogue and picked out examples of all the rules and conventions we'd been discussing.

At that point, I ran out of sensible things to say, so I sat down, feeling reasonably satisfied with 30 minutes of group work. The learners concentrated on the pages of the novel: I assumed they'd return to their math soon enough.

Someone came to the door, and I was pulled out of class for a moment. Then there was a phone call. Time passed.

When I came back, everyone was still reading. In fact, they all read the 60 or so short pages to the end of the book. "It's interesting," explained one learner. "I want to know how it turns out."

No arguing with that.

I was pleased yet again.

The reading of short and long fictions is important, I think. It's where and how we see the conventions of dialogue and narrative at work. Someone could spend a year studying works of non-fiction - science, history, how-to manuals - and practicing essays without ever coming across any real amount of written dialogue.

Of course, it's in writing that we really learn our grammars. But that writing is less likely to be pleasant or successful unless we have easily readable models at hand to imitate.

That's why I'm often uneasy to hear a learner say that they only want to real "true things," nonfiction. It's why I'm always badgering them with novels from the quick reads series or poking collections of short stories at them. I try to have quality novels and novellas on hand. I leave reader's digest abridged books laying about. I often read fiction myself while in class, and will gladly lend books for them to take home. Tomorrow, I have to make sure the rest of the Jack Sloan novels are visible and available.

Of course, this is only half the battle. I also have to encourage writing, a much harder thing - harder even than fractions.

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