Writing Mini-Lessons: Grounding Dialogue in Scenes

As you know, every fictional narrative is made up of individual scenes that are woven together into the overall tapestry of the story.


When you write a scene, it is easy to become so caught up in the dialogue that you fail to remember all the other components  included in a scene—the things that keep the readers grounded and clear about what’s happening.

Below is an example of a student’s first attempt at writing a scene:

I was so embarrassed.  I didn’t know what to say.  “Um…”
“Just apologize,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You’re forgiven. Let’s go get a slice,” she said.

We can agree that we can see some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, but we can revise this scene by adding more thoughts and feelings, as well as by adding action, setting, and more specific dialogue tags.

Here is how this student author revised the initial draft from above.

I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say.  “Um…” I kicked a pile of leaves that had gathered at the base of one of the trees on Bergen Street.  My face felt like it was so hot it would melt.

A breeze whooshed and leaves danced on the sidewalk.  “Just apologize,” she hissed.  She pulled her collar tighter and buttoned the top button.  I snuck a glance at her face.  She was biting her bottom lip.  I knew it was hard for her to ask for an apology.

An acorn fell off a tree and ricocheted off a car parked on the corner.  The smell of tomato sauce and garlic wafted in the cool, late October air.  My stomach growled.  I snuck another peek at her and now she was stomping every leaf on the sidewalk, moving intentionally to them and then crushing them under her boots as she walked. 

My heart pounded.  What if I apologized and she didn’t forgive me?  What if I didn’t and she never spoke to me again.  “I’m sorry,” I breathed.

She turned her head and smiled.  “You’re forgiven.  Let’s go get a slice,” she said.  She pointed to the pizza shop, two doors down.  I raced ahead, stomach still growling, so I could hold the door.

When the student author added setting and actions to revise, he discovered important new interactions and meanings in his story, adding interest to the scene and allowing the readers to be in the moment with the characters.

Let’s practice by revising this scene, the first half of which is grounded in setting, action, and thoughts and feelings, while the second half of the scene needs some attention. Read Parts 1 and 2. Then, with a partner, revise Part 2.

Part 1
“So, Esmé,” Maeve interrupted.  She was looking at me, calling me a much cooler version of my name than I was used to.

I couldn’t help myself; I smiled.  She had given me a cool nickname.  It was almost like we were friends.  My eyes left the spot on the carpet I had been staring at and looked at Maeve.  “Yeah?” I said, in what I hoped was my coolest voice.

Maeve leaned forward on the beanbag chair, her perfectly painted fingernails planted on her knees.  “You know Tilly better than anyone in this room; why does she dress like that?”

Part 2
“I mean, she never looks good,” Maeve said.

“Worse than that,” Liz jumped in.  “She looks like she doesn’t even care.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. “Uh…well…”

“I mean, look at you—look at us.  We clearly care.  We look good,” Liz continued.

“I know.  You completely look like you should be hanging out with us, not with Tilly.”

One Possible Revision of Part 2
“I mean, she never looks good,” Maeve said. She tucked her hair behind her ear, a diamond earring peeking out.  It was the largest diamond earring I had ever seen on a kid, and I could tell from the sparkle that it was real.

“Worse than that,” Liz jumped in.  “She looks like she doesn’t even care.” Liz sat up straight on the bed, her own painted fingernails flashing.

I wasn’t sure what to say. “Uh…well,” I stammered.  I felt like anything I said would be the wrong thing, not to mention a betrayal of Tilly.  I suddenly felt as if someone had turned up the heat.  I was sweating.

“I mean, look at you—look at us.  We clearly care.  We look good,” Liz continued. She hopped off the bed and signaled Maeve to stand beside her.  They each hit a model pose, showing off their perfect looks.  I don’t think I ever before realized just how obsessed they were with looks—their own and other people’s.

The revision above, as well as all of the others you devised in partners, grounds readers in a place and the thoughts and feelings of the characters, while also adding some action.  The revisions show how to keep readers from becoming disoriented, as if the scene were taking place in the dark.  Some of you may have even surprised yourselves, discovering things happening between the characters that you didn’t initially envision.

Revisions that start out as corrections often end as creations that enhance the piece.

In addition to grounding dialogue in scenes, below are some additional dialogue tips:

Some Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue