How to write dialogue? That’s something that should come naturally. After all, most of us spend at least a portion of each day in conversation with other people. But creating dialogue is more than simply transcribing actual speech. It’s even more complicated in children’s books, because the age of the reader must also be taken into consideration.
Written dialogue is a compressed form of real speech; it’s the meat of the conversation with all the fillers removed. Picture books and easy readers–books written for children ages eight and under–are told primarily through action, and the dialogue reflects this action. The characters’ speech in these books must give a sense of their personalities, but also clue the reader into what’s happening in the story. Just as plot has a forward direction, so must the dialogue.
In Arthur’s Loose Tooth, an easy reader by Lillian Hoban, Arthur’s dilemma is presented to the reader through a portion of a conversation with his sister:
“Guess what we are having for dessert,” said Violet. “It is your favorite treat! It is
taffy apples!” “Taffy apples!” said Arthur. “I can’t eat taffy apples with a loose tooth!
It might get stuck in the taffy!” “Well, if it gets stuck, you can pull it out,” said Violet.
“I don’t want to pull it out,” said Arthur.
Using simple, complete sentences necessary in an easy reader, the author has revealed the story’s action through natural-sounding dialogue. But how to write dialogue as stories get longer and more complicated? In these cases, the back-and-forth chatter between characters can be less linear. In real life, each person bring his or her own viewpoint into the conversation and gets something different out of the exchange. Allowing the dialogue to bounce around naturally can add humor to the scene and go a long way toward character development. However, the author still needs to be mindful of giving the reader new information that supports the plot.
In this excerpt from Marvin Redpost: Alone in His Teacher’s House, a chapter book for ages 6-9 by Louis Sachar, Marvin is dog sitting for his third grade teacher:
“Let me see the key,” said Stuart. “Did you look in her closet?” asked Nick. “No,” said
Marvin. Why would he look in her closet? “How about her refrigerator?” asked Nick.
“Did you at least look in her refrigerator?” “Let me see the key,” Stuart said again.
“How about her bathroom?” asked Nick. “I don’t remember,” said Marvin. “You don’t
remember if you saw her bathroom?” asked Nick. “Let me see the key,” said Stuart.
Dialogue is a chance for the character to speak in his own voice. But real dialogue is not exclusively something that’s said out loud. The speaker is also carrying on an internal conversation at the same time. In book genres such as middle grade and young adult novels, this inner dialogue of the main (viewpoint) character can also be shown to the reader. It’s the author’s perfect chance to allow the character to divulge deeper elements of her personality without stopping the forward movement of the plot.
Rachel Vail’s The Friendship Ring series offers terrific examples of seventh grade dialogue. In this excerpt from Zoe, the first book in the series, Zoe and a classmate are talking about best friends:
“Well,” CJ said slowly. “I was best friends with Gideon Weld when we were little, but
then, you know, we figured out he was a boy and I was a girl, so that ended that.”
“Right,” I said, like obviously you couldn’t be best friends with a boy. I’m just friends
with anybody. Nothing of my own. Why didn’t that ever bother me before? “And since
fourth grade, it’s been Morgan, although, sometimes, lately, I feel like she doesn’t
understand me,” CJ whispered. “But yeah, I guess it’s Morgan. Who’s yours?” “I don’t
know.” I faced away from her, toward the door, and folded my pillow over. “I don’t
For those struggling with the question of how to write dialogue, remember that dialogue that’s convincing and interesting is so much more than the words that come out of characters’ mouths. How a character speaks–complete with pauses and sentence fragments–can show his emotional state. How a character moves while talking adds layers of meaning to the dialogue. The setting within which the conversation takes place can affect the discourse. Dialogue is intricately connected to every other element of writing, and only when it’s seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story does the book become whole.
Tags: craft, dialogue, easy readers