September 5, 2019
Fiction, the kind accepted by children's magazines and book publishers, relies on a careful balance of great action, strong setting and believable dialogue. Readers love dialogue. It lightens the page, making the whole story feel easier to read. It allows us to hear the characters directly, helping us to know them. And it is often the best place to sprinkle in some tasty humor. Unfortunately, it's also one of the quickest ways to lose the reader.
Kids are far more discerning that many writers suspect. They know a "fake kid" when they hear one, so your dialogue must feel like real words spoken by a real kid. At the same time, it cannot include all the affectations (um, so like, um, what?) that might be part of real speech but would drag the story down.
So how do you learn how to write real dialogue? Glad you asked. Here is a three-step process that will help you transform your dialogue.
Step One: Real Live Kids
Eavesdropping on kids outside your normal sphere is a great way to hear real speech instead of relying on how you think kids talk. Or how you remember speaking from your own children. You can learn what slang is actually spoken by kids in your targeted age group today. And you find out how real kids handle conflict and frustration. Most writers are shameless eavesdroppers, so welcome to the club!
Libraries are great places to do this kind of research eavesdropping because kids (and families with kids) will gather there and they will talk––no matter how often they’re shushed. And you can often grab a chair or table near a gathering spot and simply take dictation. Then later, at your leisure, you can analyze what things make kid-speak so unique. Another good spot to hear real dialogue and make notes about it are family restaurants––diners, fast food, or chains will all work. Every time you pop in you can hear kids speaking to siblings and parents.
Step Two: Imitation Kids
Listening to real live kids will make you realize how much of conversation isn't purposeful. In fact, you’ll quickly notice how much of it doesn't even make sense. But your story dialogue must be both purposeful and clear. Thus, what you’re writing isn’t an exact match to real conversation. It’s imitation conversation that fools the ear into thinking it’s real. So how do you turn real kid speech into effective imitation kid speech? One way to learn is to study the people doing just that.
The first step is more eavesdropping, since dialogue is such an auditory phenomenon, it helps to begin with dialogue that is spoken aloud. You will be better able to judge it with your ear. But this time, we aren't going to eavesdrop on real children, but on imaginary ones. Television and movies with kid characters can let you listen to imaginary children imitating real ones. What similarities to real conversations do you hear on children's programming? Do you find yourself wincing at characters who launch into overly mature speeches or who preach to the viewer?
The first step to being able to avoid making those mistakes is being able to pick them out when others make them. This exercise is designed to help you think critically about this imaginary conversation and compare it to the study you've made of real talk. Listen and note what works well and what does not.
Step Three: Literary Kids
Book kids speak differently from television and movie kids, and also different from real kids. So try reading some dialogue aloud from children’s books you admire. Studying the dialogue in recent middle grade novels can let you take a peek at other writers trying to do what you're trying to do: create believable kid voices. After studying the writing of successful writers, turn to your own writing. Read your own dialogue aloud. The best way to judge dialogue is with your ear, so it's so important to read it aloud and listen to it.
You may want to go back and forth from published dialogue to your own, over and over. Read the published dialogue aloud, listening to how it sounds and noticing whether if feels natural as you say the words. Ask yourself what the dialogue does well and what you might change to make it better. Then again, read your own dialogue. These critical comparisons will help you hear problems with your own dialogue because you've sharpened your critical skills by using them on the dialogue you aren't emotionally attached to.
Final Pass: Does Your Dialogue Do the Job?
Natural, engaging dialogue is great. That's the hard part. But you're not done just because your dialogue sounds good. It actually needs to do even more. Dialogue actually has to serve the story as well. It must help to move the plot along and to reveal character. Children’s lit is far tighter than adult writing, and the younger the child, the more the tight word counts demand of you. So everything you write tends to do double duty, or even triple duty. Examine your dialogue and ask what job it is doing for the story? How did it move the plot closer to the ending? What new things did it reveal? Once you can defend your dialogue based on both its real sound and its purpose, you'll have dialogue that thrills readers and editors.
Whatever you do. Don’t be afraid of dialogue or try to avoid it. Readers look for it. Editors love it. So keep those characters talking.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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