Learn from the author of 27 books and over 200 short stories how to create memorable and realistic dialogue.
Dialogue serves three main purposes.
In a novel for children, where every word must do double or
even triple duty, dialogue becomes even more important.
Children’s speech is affected by the same factors that affect
adults’ speech–background, age, sex, the person to whom they’re
talking, and (in the case of teens), whom they’re trying to
The conversation of small children is unconnected, painfully
honest, and wonderfully surprising. They have no need or desire to
Teens talk much differently to their peers than they do to
their parents or teachers. They frequently have a subtext to their
One thing I don’t recommend is trying to use the latest slang
when writing young people’s dialogue. The words current right now
will probably disappear before your book is published. Nothing
dates a book so quickly as yesterday’s slang. Better to stick with
less exciting but more conventional words that won’t scream 2004
or, worse, 1954, unless, of course, that’s your goal.
Children have their own kind of short-hand in speaking.
Contrary to popular opinion, (started, I believe, by people who
have no children), children don’t speak “cute.” Any self-
respecting child would be insulted to hear his speech labeled as
such. Children’s speech is to-the-point, funny, often irrelevant,
not to mention irreverent. Use their dialogue just as you would
that of an adult character.
Just make sure that it is children’s dialogue. Children are
not miniature adults. They are children. Let us hear their
voices, not what you think children should say or how they should
say it. If you don’t have any children underfoot, go to a
playground and listen or volunteer at the local elementary school.
Really listen to endless questions, the abrupt change of topics,
the unmatched humor of children talking to each other.
Then go home and write that.
setting, weave in the details of where the dialogue is taking
characters as they are speaking.
or smirk remarks. Neither do they beam, seethe, or laugh
their words. Compare “‘You’re crazy,’ Joe said and laughed.”
to “‘You’re crazy,’ Joe laughed.” The first reads much
dialogue. It makes for awkward reading and may turn off your
- Don’t use dialogue to teach or preach to the reader. Don’t
let one character use speech to explain something that another
character would reasonably know already.
said softly, he shouted loudly, etc. Let the dialogue itself
length of sentences and vocabulary to be true to character,
education and age.
weather (unless it affects the plot in a major way) is dull.
back through a conversation and count whose turn it was to
talk? It interrupts the story and diverts your attention from
dialogue are just as unappealing as long passages of
description. As a general rule, short speeches begin the
scene and get longer.
paced action; longer sentences slow the pacing and give time
read it while you listen. Pay attention to syntax, rhythm,
as small as a “Si,” or a “Merci” can flavor a scene and give
information about the character.
question marks, and exclamation points go inside double
quotation marks. A quote within a quote uses single quotation
character speaks or action is inserted.
into character; move the action forward.
capitulated, acquiesced) and is invisible.
before another character speaks or action is inserted.
of her backpack in her hands and said, “You forgot our date
an adverb, kill it” holds true today.
character’s background, education, and age.
incomprehensible. (A few dropped g’s go a long way.)
characters, dialogue may emphasize that).
insight and accuracy, they may well do their own “talking.”