A look at the important role of dialogue in exam short stories.

  • Professionally written short stories often use regular dialogue to present characters speaking to each other.
  • Dialogue brings the characters to life, enabling the reader to ‘hear’ what they are saying, rather than relying on conversation to be reported by a narrator.
  • Dialogue prevents stories being list-like recounts.
  • Dialogue is showing, not telling.
  • Dialogue should always be interwoven with description and action to enable a reader also to ‘see’ the story.
  • Writing dialogue can help less-confident students launch a story and keep plots moving.
  • Dialogue’s complex punctuation requirements mean its a good skill to show off to an examiner.
  • Dialogue is an opportunity to write small amounts of non-cohesive and non-standard language, mimicking the real patterns of spontaneous spoken language.
  • Stories can be written without dialogue but students should be confident in creating a narrator’s voice so compelling the reader won’t miss ‘hearing’ other voices.

“Too much dialogue.”

The genesis of this article was a couple of unusual reviews on my collection of model short stories. In general the reviews and ratings are good. The average hovers around 4 to 4.5 out of 5 and I often get lovely messages from readers saying how useful they find the text.

However, some comments have noted the use of dialogue in the short stories as a problem. For one reviewer, this was enough to give it one star.

I went to stare at the sea for a while and then had a cup of tea and a think. Were they right?

After all, if a story is written entirely in dialogue, it will read more like a play script and will lose all of the opportunities a narrator provides to describe and to present action. That is a huge potential hit to marks – no description means little or no simile or metaphor. No description probably also means fewer varied sentences. Suddenly, this hypothetical all-dialogue story is plummeting down the marking grid, from “compelling, convincing” to “simple, limited.”

I looked again at my stories, comparing them again with mark schemes, examiner reports and exam board exemplars. Ever the reflective practitioner, I thought again about my teaching methods and my long experience of tutoring students to exam success. I read, again, professionally written short stories and I re-worked some of my stories to see how they would feel written with little or no dialogue. Would they be better, more convincing?

Now, I am happy to report back that the stories as originally published are….great! The regular use of dialogue works to create dramatic compelling characters, showing (not telling) their human back-stories, motivations and feelings. The dialogue does not dominate. It works in a flexible triumvirate with description and action; all is interwoven to create a multi-layered experience for the reader (examiner). The stories are not “simple, limited.” They are compelling. They are convincing.

Now, you may say, “come off it Mooney. Anyone can review their own work positively.” And you’d be right.

So here, in exhaustive detail, is my justification for my recommendations to students about how to deploy dialogue in exam-style stories. From seeing what professionals do to a deep-dive into the exciting potential for interplay between cohesion and coherence, this article has it all. I hope it will be helpful to parents, students and other teacher and tutors, trying to navigate the complex landscape of GCSE English assessment.

There I go again, positively reviewing my own work. So I leave you with a reader’s review to show I am not making this all up!

Very happy with this book. I bought two in this series for my nephew and he has worked really well through them both and can now answer exam questions with confidence. I couldn’t ask for more, thank you.

Taking a leaf out of the professionals’ books

The best place to start is with actual short stories. Real ones, out there in the wild. The genre is a slippery one and any attempt at a clear definition of the form falls flat on its face at the first word. After all, what exactly does ‘short’ mean? Many short stories are, in fact, quite long. Nobel Prize laureate Alice Munro generally writes short stories of around 10,000 words. James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ is almost 16,000 words. These are certainly shorter than the average length of most novels (around 75,000 words), but they are certainly not achievable by a student writing in 45 minutes.

That is the main reason I wrote my collection of model short stories in the first place. Few professionals ever venture below 1,000 words and, when they do, it is often for experimental reasons, leading to fragments, writing exercises, described moments rather than complete stories.

Writers also tend to disagree in their own definitions of a short story and indeed, leafing through any anthology shows that a wide range of possible styles can be employed to create a short story.

However, something stands out. While one story can be dramatically different in style from the next, there is something that unites them, a shared stylistic device that all writers call upon in some form: direct speech, also known as dialogue.

For example, there are 30 stories in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story. Only three have no dialogue at all:

  • Graham Swift’s ‘Remember This’, tells the story of a husband’s unspoken thoughts and emotions while his wife sleeps. Thus, there is a realistic reason for the absence of dialogue; the husband doesn’t want to wake his wife.
  • China Miéville’s ‘Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia’, is presented as an entry from a reference work. It is an experimental story without the usual features of narrative prose. There are no characters being brought to life and living through a series of dramatic events. No characters means no dialogue. There is no-one to speak.
  • Sarah Hall’s ‘Later, His Ghost’ is the story of one man battling chaotic climate conditions in post-apocalyptic Norwich, alone. He has no-one to speak to and, lo, he does not speak.

Crucially, in these dialogue-free stories, the absence of dialogue is explained by the situation of the story – silence is necessary or there is no-one to speak to. The writer hasn’t just decided to portray living humans but not let the reader ‘hear’ them speak.

Now, that is a mistake students often make. They write huge paragraphs of narration and description but, despite the fact that, for example, an argument at a wedding is being portrayed, at no point does the reader actually ‘hear’ the characters. Usually, this means the student has simply forgotten to use dialogue or is avoiding it because it is hard, which indeed it is. It is much easier to write big clumps of text rather than creating the much more interwoven texture of styles that dialogue requires. For a reader though, it is frustrating. Why is the narrator standing in the way like this? Un-mute the mics and let us hear the characters!

This is exactly what the other writers in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story do. The characters speak and the reader can ‘hear’ them. All the other stories in the anthology make regular use of dialogue. For some, dialogue is by far the most striking feature of the story:

  • Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ has page after page of dialogue as the three characters meet and talk at length, attempting to untangle decades of love affairs, grievance and shattered hopes.
  • Jane Gardam’s ‘Dangers’ starts with some set-up paragraphs without dialogue, before continuing the rest of the story as a series of touching dialogues between Jake and Granny, creating a rite-of-passage story out of the relationship between the two characters.
  • Helen Simpson’s ‘Every Third Thought’ presents a narrator talking to family and friends as she lives through a turbulent period; friends and neighbours are being diagnosed with cancer and she fears that it may be her turn next. In a nice detail for an English teacher, the narrator’s daughter, we learn, has “started revising for her GCSEs already, a year in advance.” Good decision!

Take a look at other collections and you will make the same observation: almost all short stories use dialogue, many use dialogue regularly on every page. ‘Too much’ dialogue doesn’t seem to be a concern for these professional writers. In fact, dialogue is a primary and necessary feature of most short stories.

The rest of this article, then, is a very deep-dive into the many benefits for students of choosing to use dialogue in exam short stories. Dialogue can help students avoid common errors that lead to “simple, limited” stories, challenging students instead to write more “compelling, convincing” texts and should be a writing skill all students learn, develop and have at their disposal.

1. Dialogue brings characters to life

A common problem I see when reading exam stories written under timed conditions is characters who are basically featureless voids. They are nameless lumps hidden behind a wall of plodding prose, colourless, lifeless, nothings. Consider this story opening:

I was walking along and a cyclist passed me and almost ran me over which was odd. He was my friend and I was near the sea and I hadn't seen him in a while. I made a decision to try to catch him up so I tried to catch him up and I called out. He turned around and saw me trying to catch him up and he said he'd meet me at the pier so he kept cycling.

Once students make the decision to have their characters speaking for themselves, good things start to happen. The student starts using their imagination to put flesh on the bones of their characters. Suddenly they have names, facial expressions, a tone of voice. Now take a look at the same story opening, re-written with dialogue:

I jumped out of the way as the cyclist shot past me along the promenade. I realised in slow-motion who it was. I hadn't seen him in ages.

"Hey! Dylan!" He couldn't hear me above the sound of the waves. I ran to catch him up. "Dylan!"

He slowed, turned and nodded. "Meet me at the pier. I've got news," he said, urgently, before frowning and pedalling off.

A story with fully imagined characters is not just more interesting to read. It is also more likely to require the students to use descriptive language which is rewarded well by examiners.

Also, a story with fully imagined speaking characters means there will be more than one ‘voice’ in the story. People speak differently from each other and also speak differently at different times and in different circumstances. A character under pressure may well speak in fragments (see no. 7 below for more on this). Meanwhile, the narrator can be unflustered, ‘speaking’ in carefully constructed sentences. The contrast only adds to the drama of the moment:

"It's...I mean..." Dylan hesitated. "Because...what?...Come on..." Dylan lapsed into silence . The news had stunned him. He gazed off into the distance, shapes shimmering on the horizon, his new life taking shape before him, as he began to realise that it had all been a lie.

The narrator here helps us to understand more about the characters but isn’t the only source of information about them. Their words, spoken to us directly and the tone in which those words are delivered, speak volumes. Dialogue is a powerful tool – don’t ignore it!

2. Avoiding list-like recounts

Often, when students first start writing exam stories, what results is more like a list of events, a recount, rather than a story.

Partly this is because of a lack of descriptive language or an unwillingness to be creative with narrative timings – speeding up and slowing down for dramatic effect. Students also write recounts because of poor decisions about what information to include. Recounts often include lots of unnecessary, boring or irrelevant detail. Consider this example:

Rosie picked up her schoolbag and stood up from the grey chair which was on the classroom floor near a table at which she had been working, doing some maths. She walked across the big classroom and went through the wide door which was open because the teacher had propped it open for fresh air. She went down the long corridor past the other classrooms to the stairs which led from the ground floor to the other floors of the school that she was in. She went down the stairs and got to the main entrance where she opened the door and walked into the playground.

Even injecting only a small amount of dialogue would help improve this sort of writing, making it come to life and feel much more like a story. Dialogue would break in to this wall of prose and make it more varied and interesting. It would also show off a wider range of writing skill, attracting more marks from your examiner. Add a bit of description, vary the pacing, delete unnecessary detail (the reader can be trusted to know that a chair in a classroom is near a table) and now you have a story, like this:

"Rosie? What are you playing at?"

Rosie kept walking, dazed, the teacher's words fading behind her. The corridor was a blur. Rosie stumbled down the stairs, scattering things from her schoolbag as she picked up speed.

"Rosie?" The headteacher tried to stop her but Rosie was already out the door and running. Running for her life.

This is obviously more compelling and also shows much more variety of language skill. Marks all round. Well done and keep going!

3. Showing, not telling

Related to the problem of recounts rather than stories is the problem of telling, rather than showing. A narrator, in the absence of any other voices, can dominate and talk at the reader, even to the extent of telling the reader what to think.

Many readers recoil from this, preferring instead a narrator who invites us in to their tale with the expansive welcoming gesture of a ringmaster. Examiners too will reward showing rather than telling because it is a more ambitious style, leading to inventive language choices and a compelling story.

Dialogue can be part of this, helping to show rather than tell. In particular, dialogue can help solve the thorny problem of exposition. Exposition is necessary. The readers need to learn, very quickly, some key details about the characters and the set up:

  • Where are we?
  • What time of year/day is it?
  • Who are these characters?
  • How do they know each other?
  • What is their backstory?

A bad decision would be to answer all these questions in a huge, clunky opening paragraph, an information dump. This is not ambitious, nor is it compelling. Again, it can feel like a wall of prose. Consider this example:

Pavel and his friend Barry are walking along the High Street. It is cold and snow is falling. They are excited because they are bunking off school because Barry found a fifty pound note and wants to spend it. They have done their zips up so that no one sees their school uniform. They walk along, looking at the shop windows, trying to find a place to spend their new-found wealth.

This is fine. But that’s all it is, fine. Notice the repetition – three of the sentences start with “they”, similar to the Rosie extract above where many sentences started with “she.” This repetition is a classic ‘tell’, showing a writer who lacks ambition and creativity, relying instead on plodding recounting.

So, a ‘fine’ story is not really going to get the big marks. Add a bit of dialogue, however, and the key expository information is revealed as part of the natural conversation the two characters are having:

"I was the one who found it remember," said Barry, wafting the fifty pound note in Pavel's face.

"I know," said Pavel, rolling his eyes, "I just think we could spend it on something more meaningful than fifty quid's worth of Greggs sausage rolls." Pavel wandered off, checking his zip was still done up, making sure his school uniform was hidden as a PCSO walked by. He had expected bunking off to be a bit more exciting than this.

"They are good sausage rolls though," said Barry, eyeing the display through the shop window, before reluctantly following Pavel down the High Street.

Instead of an indigestible wall of text, we get a varied series of paragraphs, revealing a lot about character and setting as well as doing the necessary job of exposition. Pavel and Barry come to life, and the examiner will be ticking away merrily.

4. Warp and weft – interweaving description and action among the dialogue

The examples above also show another benefit of using dialogue. Direct speech in stories rarely happens alone. The dialogue tags, where the narrator says who is speaking (e.g. “said Pavel”), are opportunities for the narrator also to indicate tone of voice, facial expression, an action or even an emotion, memory or thought that the character is experiencing whilst speaking the words contained in the speech marks. Here’s Pavel again:

"I know," said Pavel, rolling his eyes, "I just think we could spend it on something more meaningful than fifty quid's worth of Greggs sausage rolls." Pavel wandered off, checking his zip was still done up, making sure his school uniform was hidden as a PCSO walked by. He had expected bunking off to be a bit more exciting than this.

Consider how much we learn about Pavel from this paragraph. It is launched by and built around dialogue but not dominated by it. The dialogue tag leads into facial expression, action and a memory of what he had previously hoped. As this is early in the story, this all aids exposition too. We now know that they are bunking off and have found a £50 note.

Story writing without dialogue may well lose these opportunities and create a flat monochrome instead of the multi-layered tapestry that readers enjoy, and examiners reward.

5. Launching and keeping going – dialogue’s role as the motor of a plot

Dialogue is also excellent for injecting momentum into a plot. Students often struggle to keep the plot moving, drying up after eighty words or so, not knowing what to do. A burst of dialogue can get the plot moving again, especially if the dialogue is dynamic, creating dramatic tension and excitement. The story is on the move again.

This also means that dialogue is an excellent way to open the story. Hit the ground running by launching your readers straight into the middle of a tense, dramatic conversation. This creates an in medias res opening which is an ambitious structural device and will, if it works, be rewarded well.

Consider Pavel and Barry again:

"I was the one who found it remember," said Barry, wafting the fifty pound note in Pavel's face.

"I know," said Pavel, rolling his eyes, "I just think we could spend it on something more meaningful than fifty quid's worth of Greggs sausage rolls." Pavel wandered off, checking his zip was still done up, making sure his school uniform was hidden as a PCSO walked by. He had expected bunking off to be a bit more exciting than this.

"They are good sausage rolls though," said Barry, eyeing the display through the shop window, before reluctantly following Pavel down the High Street. 

We are straight into the action. The boys are already bunking off. They are already on the High Street. Moreover, their relationship is already starting to fracture as we witness the beginning of a disagreement that could become more tense and could be a good source of drama as the story progresses.

Sure, it’s possible to start a story in medias res without dialogue but it’s definitely worth considering and can have an electrifying effect, plunging the reader into the midst of tension and drama.

6. A wide range of punctuation, full range of sentence forms and complex grammatical structures

The assessment objectives and mark schemes for the exam writing tasks make it clear that, for top marks, students need to demonstrate a level of writing skill above and beyond the more humdrum simplified writing of everyday.

The top band of the AO6 Technical Accuracy section of the AQA mark scheme is as follows:

  • Sentence demarcation is consistently secure and consistently accurate
  • Wide range of punctuation is used with a high level of accuracy
  • Uses a full range of appropriate sentence forms for effect
  • Uses Standard English consistently and appropriately with secure control of complex grammatical structures

Dialogue can help meet these requirements. Let’s say hello to Rosie again:

"Rosie? What are you playing at?"

Rosie kept walking, dazed, the teacher's words fading behind her. The corridor was a blur. Rosie stumbled down the stairs, scattering things from her schoolbag as she picked up speed.

"Rosie?" The headteacher tried to stop her but Rosie was already out the door and running. Running for her life.

Sentence demarcation (full stops, capital letters etc) is secure, including inside the dialogue, where students often fail to demarcate correctly. This extract demonstrates an awareness of how sentence demarcation from the shortest of sentences up to multi-clause multi-layered sentences. Dialogue is not solely responsible for this but remember that the non-dialogue version of the Rosie extract is four plodding middle-sized sentences with only the most basic of shaping and punctuation.

The dialogue version of the Rosie extract also uses a wider range of punctuation than the non-dialogue version. Questions are correctly punctuated, something again often missed by students. There are also commas used both for grammatical reasons (“stairs, scattering” separating a main clause from a subordinate clause) and for dramatic reasons (“walking, dazed, the teacher’s”), creating a pause, and suggesting the character’s uncertainty.

The full range of sentences is used from single word minor sentences (“Rosie?”), via short dramatic simple sentences (“The corridor was a blur.”) to longer compound and complex forms, with interwoven non-finite forms (“fading behind her” “scattering things from her schoolbag”) to add description and action. There is also a carefully deployed non-finite fragment at the end (“Running for her life.”) which makes use of repetition (anadiplosis in fact) and the stopping power of a full stop to create a sense of caesura (a technique borrowed from poetry), suggesting and depicting Rosie’s faltering, stumbling uncertainty.

Standard English is used consistently in the section with a short excursion into slightly more colloquial English with the teacher’s demand to know what Rosie was “playing at.” Dialogue can allow students to embed more ‘realistic’ forms of spontaneous spoken English alongside the more crafted forms of written English.

Again, dialogue is not solely responsible for all these good outcomes. A non-dialogue story could be written that demonstrates similar variety of sentence choice and opportunity for a wide range of punctuation. However, in my experience, students default to the plodding sentence style and dialogue can jolt them out of their complacency and require students to give much more thought and attention to sentences and punctuation, with a concomitant improvement in marks. It’s a win-win!

Finally in this section, a look at the examiner reports is useful. The AQA Examiner report June 2017 notes that “there were…students…of all abilities, who were unable to punctuate dialogue correctly.” Punctuating dialogue correctly is hard but given how few students do it well, my advice is that there is an advantage to being one of the few students who gets it right. Examiners will read hundreds of poorly punctuated stories. Give them a break. Punctuate well and give them what they want.

The AQA Examiner report June 2019 reminded teachers that “accurate sentence and speech punctuation are all core skills for this specification.” Clearly the cri-de-coeur in the 2017 report went largely unheard! Poor examiners. Again, my message to students is: give the examiners what they want.

The CAIE IGCSE Examiner report Nov 2020 made a case for better and more effective stories to be created “by dialogue, characterisation and shaping the narrative.” Again, the examiners are strongly suggesting, nay requesting, dialogue. Let’s not let them down.

7. Non-cohesive and non-Standard? Are you recommending a student should write ‘bad’ English?

Almost there! One last reason why dialogue can improve both a story and a student’s marks is that it allows multiple voices to exist in a story. As we saw with Dylan earlier, dialogue can be crafted that is completely different in style to the words used by the narrator. This can allow for more realism. After all, people under pressure may well speak in fragments:

"It's...I mean..." Dylan hesitated. "Because...what?...Come on..." Dylan lapsed into silence . The news had stunned him. He gazed off into the distance, shapes shimmering on the horizon, his new life taking shape before him, as he began to realise that it had all been a lie.

In technical terms this is called non-cohesive language. We often speak non-cohesively but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are incoherent. A text can be fragmented, halting, even a little broken but still be understood. Making limited use of non-cohesive language in dialogue allows a student to show how controlled and careful their use of language is. To be able to switch from one style to another, on a sixpence, is virtuoso writing.

Now, some may hesitate here and argue that this is ‘bad’ English and should be nowhere near an exam. However, crack open any story written by professionals and you are likely to see non-cohesive dialogue co-existing with narration written in Standard English. This is particularly common when characters speak in dialect. Consider this encounter between a smooth metropolitan news reporter and a sugar beet farmer at a bus stop in Norfolk:

"Yew gern up setty?" he said, nodding towards the arriving bus. Then his eyes opened wide with recognition. He was in the presence of celebrity. Well, at least, a local news celebrity. "Yew that mawther bin mardlin' on them sugar problems, hent cha? Noow, thass a roight big worry that has us all be blarring."

"I'm...terribly sorry. Could you...say that again?" The reporter was flummoxed. She'd only travelled a few miles into the country but it felt more like a thousand.

"Yew gern ter be on the ol' wassname ternoight? Thass all uv us lerkin' at yer." He brandished his umbrella. "Jess tek care as thass rainin' later that is." He stuck his arm out for the bus.

"I...yes...well...you see the...producer thought that..." The reporter tailed off. She didn't even know the question she was attempting to answer. Normally, in war zones, she'd have an interpreter. Out here among the sugar beet though, she was on her own.

The interplay between the farmer’s dialect, the reporter’s Standard English and the narrator’s slightly ironising tone create a comic scene. The reporter is out of her depth and displays perhaps a touch of snobbery. Is she the best person to be reporting on problems with the sugar beet harvest?

It is true that too much of this dialect might be tough for a reader, so small bursts of it, or the occasional dialect word here and there, are often enough just to give a sense of how the characters would speak in real life. So, as I say to my students, give it a go. Show your examiners your grasp not just of Standard English but also of non-cohesive spontaneous English and of regional dialects. Or as we say in Norfolk, bishy barnabee!

I’m still not convinced. I still prefer to write stories without dialogue.

My argument is that dialogue is the lifeblood of a good story. It helps students avoid common errors and reliance on simple, limited language, encouraging them instead to use a wider range of language skill to create compelling, convincing texts that examiners will enjoy and reward with high marks.

True, too much dialogue could cause a problem but my model stories, I argue, contain a Goldilocks amount of dialogue, interwoven as it is with deep description and exciting action to create multi-layered and multi-vocal stories that entice, entertain and, crucially, hoover up marks.

Some, even after all this, will still prefer stories with little or no dialogue and, of course, stories written in that way can be successful. In fact, as we have seen, ten percent of the stories in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story are completely dialogue-free. However, the writers of those stories have solved the problem of simple, limited prose by, for a start, being excellent, highly-skilled professionals.

They also make use of memory, allusion, extracts from other written texts, indirect speech and, in the case of China Miéville, sub-headings, graphological features such as bold and italic text and meta-textual features such as footnotes. Essentially, what is lost by not having dialogue (the multi-layered, the multi-vocal) is made up for by other features.

So, by all means, if a student seeks to go ahead and write without dialogue, there are other options available. Even so, I still recommend to all my students to give dialogue a go and make it part of their stock of writing strategies.

Thanks for reading.