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Dialogue for a Children’s or Young Adult Novel

Learn from the author of 27 books and over 200 short stories how to create memorable and realistic dialogue.

Dialogue serves three main purposes.

  1. Show character.
  2. Advance action.
  3. Bring in relevant information to avoid long passages of narrative. (Avoid explaining too much in dialogue, though. That can become as tedious as over-long narrative.)

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

impress.

The conversation of small children is unconnected, painfully

honest, and wonderfully surprising. They have no need or desire to

impress anyone.

Teens talk much differently to their peers than they do to

their parents or teachers. They frequently have a subtext to their

words.

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.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Dialogue

Don’t’s

Don’ts

  • Don’t have conversations taking place in a vacuum. Show the

    setting, weave in the details of where the dialogue is taking

    place.

    -

  • Don’t have invisible people talking. Let us see the

    characters as they are speaking.

  • Don’t use inappropriate tags: i.e. People don’t smile, shrug,

    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

    smoother.

  • Don’t be afraid to use said and asked. They disappear into

    the background.

  • Don’t attempt to duplicate regional dialect or foreign

    dialogue. It makes for awkward reading and may turn off your

    reader completely.

    - 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.

  • Don’t use adverbs to describe a character’s speech; i.e. she

    said softly, he shouted loudly, etc. Let the dialogue itself

    give emotion.

  • Don’t forget the use of silence in language.

Do’s:

  • Do listen to the way children talk with each other.
  • Do match the dialogue to the character speaking it. Check

    length of sentences and vocabulary to be true to character,

    education and age.

  • Do give your characters something important to say. The

    weather (unless it affects the plot in a major way) is dull.

  • Do cue the speeches to the speakers. Have you ever had to go

    back through a conversation and count whose turn it was to

    talk? It interrupts the story and diverts your attention from

    the action.

  • Do keep most of your dialogue short. Long paragraphs of

    dialogue are just as unappealing as long passages of

    description. As a general rule, short speeches begin the

    scene and get longer.

  • Do fit dialogue to action. Short, snappy sentences fit fast-

    paced action; longer sentences slow the pacing and give time

    for reflection.

  • Do read your dialogue aloud. Better yet, have someone else

    read it while you listen. Pay attention to syntax, rhythm,

    word choice.

  • Do use dialect and foreign phrases sparingly. Even something

    as small as a “Si,” or a “Merci” can flavor a scene and give

    information about the character.

  • Do master the mechanics of punctuation. Periods, commas,

    question marks, and exclamation points go inside double

    quotation marks. A quote within a quote uses single quotation

    marks.

  • Do allow three lines of dialogue per character before another

    character speaks or action is inserted.

  • Do have one computer screen of dialogue between tags.
  • Do give each character a pet phrase, then use with discretion.

Determine How Well Your Dialogue Stacks Up Against These Fifteen Tips:

  1. In modern novels 20% – 60% of a manuscript should be dialogue.
  2. Dialogue should do one or both of two things: give insight

    into character; move the action forward.

  3. “Said” is better than a more jarring tag (interjected,

    capitulated, acquiesced) and is invisible.

  4. Short speeches begin the scene and get longer.
  5. As a general rule, allow three lines of dialogue per character

    before another character speaks or action is inserted.

  6. Allow one computer screen of dialogue between tags.
  7. Use action to identify the speaker; i.e. Meg twisted the strap

    of her backpack in her hands and said, “You forgot our date

    last night.”

  8. Use adverbs with caution. Mark Twain’s advice of “If you see

    an adverb, kill it” holds true today.

  9. Remember that children use speech to do different things than

    do adults.

  10. Consider giving characters a pet phrase.
  11. Check length of sentences and vocabulary to be true to the

    character’s background, education, and age.

  12. Use dialect sparingly. Don’t let it make your writing

    incomprehensible. (A few dropped g’s go a long way.)

  13. Don’t forget the use of silence in language.
  14. Always consider subtext (what else is going on between

    characters, dialogue may emphasize that).

  15. Listen to your characters. If you have drawn them with

    insight and accuracy, they may well do their own “talking.”

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