Back To CourseCommon Core ELA Grade 8 - Literature: Standards
9 chapters | 60 lessons
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Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Dialogue, or a conversation between two or more people, can tell the reader a lot about characters' personalities. And, as readers, we want to be able to understand the characters because we're investing our time in getting to know them, whether we're taking the time to read a short story, a novel, or a script. Powerful dialogue can reveal:
A character's thoughts and feelings and how he or she interacts with others can be shown in various ways. Let's say there's an impatient boy who hates when his sister takes a long time getting ready for school because it often leads to him being late. We can understand all of that just by having him say, 'You're seriously going to curl your hair right now?' He rolled his eyes and walked away. 'So much for making it to the bus,' he grumbled.
We're able to pick up on his impatience by what he says and by the way he says it. We can sense his annoyed tone of voice, and we can see that he grumbles as he walks away from his sister, which shows how he interacts with her. He doesn't directly tell her that he thinks they will miss the bus because she has decided to take the time to curl her hair, but he hints at it by what he says to her and then walks away to express more of what he's thinking to himself. All of this reveals his character.
There are countless qualities that characters can possess, and many of these traits can be shown by the way they speak. Some characters may shout, stutter, frequently interrupt others, or quickly change the subject. All of these ways of speaking can lead us to wonder if they have anger issues, anxiety, if they're self-centered, or keeping a secret. The more we closely analyze not only what they say, but how they say it, the better we'll understand them.
Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway was a master at saying a great deal through very few words. His carefully worded dialogue made his characters come to life in just a few brief but important lines.
In his short story 'A Soldier's Home', there is a poignant scene between a mother and her son. Krebs, who is also referred to as Harold by his mother, is a young man who just returned from the Civil War, and he is feeling out of place and empty. His mother has made breakfast for him, and this is part of their conversation: 'God has some work for everyone to do,' his mother said. 'There can't be no idle hands in His Kingdom.' 'I'm not in His Kingdom,' Krebs said. 'We are all of us in His Kingdom.' Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
'I've worried about you so much, Harold,' his mother went on. 'I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.' Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate.
This scene shows that Krebs and his mother have conflicting beliefs, that his mother is very adamant about her beliefs, and when she pushes that, he feels embarrassed and bitter. However, he doesn't say anything in response. He is silent rather than confrontational or argumentative. His mother is much more expressive than he is and goes on to tell him about her worries and fears. Again, Krebs responds by staying silent. But Hemingway doesn't specifically state that Krebs didn't say anything.
He conveys that by saying that Krebs 'looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.' Hemingway creates tension through what is said and through what is not said. He uses the simple act of a young man staring down at his plate to reveal a bit about who this character is. Hemingway pushes us to read carefully, paying attention to what is said and how the characters interact with each other. That's the only way we can understand what they're thinking and feeling, and it's how we can make assumptions about their background and experiences. Hemingway won't spell it all out for us. We have to take time to analyze each line.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is a best-selling novel set in Afghanistan. Mariam is the illegitimate child of a rich man and a servant. She grows up in a tiny hut with her Nana, her very bitter mother.
Her mother won't let her go to school and says, 'What's the sense in schooling a girl like you? It's like shining a spittoon.' She goes on to say that the only lesson that an Afghan woman needs to learn is how to endure. When Mariam asks, 'Endure what?' Nana says, 'Oh, don't you fret about that. There won't be any shortage of things.'
Within a few lines of dialogue, we're able to get a strong sense of Nana's bitter feelings about life and how resentful she is of her daughter. What she says shows that she believes life will be as miserable for Mariam as it has been for her, which points to her background. This also reveals Mariam's desire to go to school, since she has asked her mother about why she can't go. Her mother's motive is clearly to keep Mariam at home with her, and she doesn't mind insulting Mariam in the process. She probably wants her daughter to see the world as pessimistically as she does because she tells her life is about enduring. However, since Nana's life has clearly been full of enduring hardships as a servant cast out to live in a hut and raise her illegitimate child alone, she may think she's doing Mariam a favor by trying to harden her at such a young age.
Subtext is the underlying meaning that can refer to what characters are actually thinking and feeling, or to their motives or desires. There are often subtle meanings brewing beneath what characters say, think, or do. Let's look at how subtext can be used through dialogue by looking at a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
In this scene, Daisy, who is already married to Tom, visits the mansion of Gatsby, her long lost love. Nick, Daisy and Gatsby's mutual friend is the third wheel as these two awkwardly reconnect. It's the first time she has visited him since he has amassed the wealth that is so important to her. Gatsby shows off his extravagant lifestyle through his extensive collection of shirts.
'I've got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.' He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft, rich heap mounted higher - shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. 'They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. 'It makes me sad because I've never seen such - such beautiful shirts before.'
Even though Daisy talks about the shirts as she cries, she isn't really crying about the shirts. She's emotional because Gatsby finally has what she and her family would call 'proper wealth,' but she is now married to Tom. She may even be feeling guilty because she chose to marry Tom rather than marry Gatsby before he was wealthy or wait for him to acquire wealth. But on the surface, this conversation is purely about shirts. The subtext tells us the meaning behind their words and her reaction. Therefore, through the use of subtext in dialogue, we are able to learn even more about the characters.
Let's review what we just covered. Dialogue, or a conversation between two or more people, can tell the reader a lot about characters' personalities. And, as readers, we want to be able to understand the characters because we're investing our time in getting to know them. Powerful dialogue can reveal:
Also, what a character says or chooses not to say can show a great deal about who he or she is, as was the case with Krebs in Hemingway's short story 'A Soldier's Home'. What a character wants, or her motives, can show a lot about her personality, like Nana's bitter pessimism in Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Subtext is the underlying meaning that can refer to what characters are actually thinking and feeling, or to their motives or desires. F. Scott Fitzgerald perfectly illustrated the power of subtext by having Daisy cry over Gatsby's extravagant clothes when really she was crying because she can't marry him. The subtext says it all.
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Back To CourseCommon Core ELA Grade 8 - Literature: Standards
9 chapters | 60 lessons