Getting dialogue right is vitally important in your book…even for books for small children. Your dialogue needs to be sharp and to the point. It should be understandable and be there for a purpose, not to fill space or up your word count.
Make sure your dialogue adds to the story. It should be there to tell your reader either something about the person talking. For example, perhaps the things your character says are really nasty indicating they are a nasty, jealous person or what they talk about shows you what type of person they are. The dialogue may also move the story on; discussions or fights between characters can be a good way of showing the next bit of the story. You can use it as a device for going to the next exciting bit of your tale.
When it comes to your characters talking, remember who your audience is. For young children, the dialogue should be simple and you may wish to repeat a word or phrase for your reader to listen out for. Take the story of the three little pigs, who doesn’t forget the phrase: ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’?
For an older audience, you still must take cognisance of their age group or who you are aiming your story at. You shouldn’t have characters talking about more adult themes (such as those you will find in books for young adults) if your book is aimed at primary school age (or younger) children. However, the opposite is true for young adults and adults.
I had a writing tutor who only liked ‘he said/she said’ in dialogue. He hated things like: ‘she laughed’, ‘he chuckled’, ‘she screamed’, ‘he sneered’. I don’t know why. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s up to you whether you stick to just ‘he said/she said’ or put in other words. Personally, I prefer to mix it up a bit…I think it makes your writing much more interesting and gives the dialogue a little bit more fizz.
Here are a few ‘don’ts’ for you…
1) Don’t make characters speak as normal people do, but keep their conversations to the point. What I mean here is that if you listen to normal speech, you’ll find it’s drawn out and all over the place and dotted with things like ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘ers’. Keep your dialogue snappy and leave out repetition in books for older kids, unless it’s an important part of the story or your character’s characteristics.
2) Don’t use too many colloquialisms or give your characters too much of an accent. This can be difficult to read and can put your reader off. There’s no problem about having the odd little bit of ‘accent’. Being Scottish myself, I know that what defines we Scots as a nation is often our use of words such as ‘aye’ and ‘wee’ and the northern English don’t have mothers, but talk of their ‘mam’. You can use these when writing for children, just don’t overdo it.
3) Don’t use swear words or very violent pieces of dialogue – unless you are writing for young adults and adults. It will put off not only your reader, but their parents (the buyers of the book), the publisher and school teachers (who are also potential buyers).
4) Don’t have huge swatches of text or have loads of long sentences. Give your dialogue a mixture of very short, medium-sized and longer sentences. Don’t have your characters jabbering away too long as this will slow the pace of your book and bore your reader. Remember: only have dialogue in that moves your story along or says something about your character.
5) You can use dialogue to quicken or slow the pace of your book. Someone who is speaking quite slowly and hesitatingly, who uses long sentences, will slow the pace. Short sentences, short words, use of exclamation marks and other punctuation will quicken the pace.
6) Talking of punctuation – make sure you use it. There is no point writing a brilliant piece of dialogue if the punctuation is all wrong. Put a comma, semi-colon or a full stop in the wrong place and the meaning of your dialogue could be completely different from what you intended. For instance, take this sentence: The boy sits at the table; he eats peanut butter and leaves. It’s different if you change the punctuation: The boy sits; at the table he eats peanut butter and leaves.