Author Ellen Jackson

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"What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?"
--Alice (From Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

Dialogue is one of the more challenging aspects of writing. It can also be one of the most appealing elements of your story. Skillful dialogue isnít easy to write, but when done properly it lightens the narrative and keeps the story moving along. Children, like everyone else, love to listen in on other peopleís conversations. When a child is trying to choose a book, he often scans the pages looking for dialogue. To young children, a set of quotation marks represents a fun, lively tale that proceeds at a nice paceĖa story that wonít get bogged down in too much description.

But writing good dialogue is about as easy as eating peanut butter and whistling at the same time. It's doable, with practice. Before you can write effective dialogue, consider why you may want to. The following are the six main reasons you want to include dialogue in your story. Donít forget that dialogue can serve more than one of these functions:


Dialogue reveals character.

"Show the little runt around the mansion," said Mr. Grisly, "and then feed him to the piranhas."

Dialogue gives necessary information.

"Thatís my cat," Missy told the fireman. "Sheís been missing for days. Her name is Patches."

Dialogue moves the plot along.

"Iím going to the store, and when I come back youíd better have your homework done," said Mom.

Dialogue can show what one character thinks of another character.

"You stay here and brood about the meaning of life," said Chester. "Iíll take care of Patsy."

Dialogue can reveal conflict and build tension.

"Youíve got the smarts to get into medical school," said Dad.
"But Iíve always wanted to be a teacher," said Megan.
"Nonsense," said Dad. "Youíll change your mind."

Dialogue can show how someone feels.

"Whatís the matter with you?" asked Jose. "Iíve never known you to snap like that."

"So what? Who cares?" said Rita. "You havenít even called to see how my sisterís doing."


Young children use short sentences and simple language when they speak. To be convincing, the children in your stories need to speak this way too. Another reason to write basic, straightforward dialogue is that children, particularly younger children, are just beginning to read. They want dialogue that is fun, easy, and not too difficult to decipher. Difficult words or convoluted sentences make them feel that reading your book is a choreĖand you donít want that. On the other hand, simple doesnít mean simple-minded. Donít write dialogue that is condescending or patronizing.

Not this: "Our monarch has unexpectedly received a large party of visitors and needs to partake of your wares," said the messenger.

This: "The king has company and needs your help," said the messenger. "Can you supply food for fifty men?"

Beginning writers sometimes show an adult talking to a child about the merits or consequences of his behavior. Often this comes as a speech at the end of a story stating a moral or message. Avoid this unless you mean to characterize that adult as pompous and overbearing. Children are preached at enough in real life and are turned off by a story that does this too. Thatís not to imply that your story canít have a theme or a point to it. But your story is most effective if the reader notes the consequences of a characterís actions and behavior and draws his own conclusions.


A person gets to know a character in the same way that he gets to know a real personĖthrough her speech and behavior. For this reason, the first rule for writing effective dialogue is to make it sound real. After youíve written a few lines, always read what youíve written aloud. Youíll spot mistakes and cliches that you wouldnít otherwise notice, and you can tell whether youíve written dialogue that feels natural and authentic. Also, note the rhythm and pacing of your writing. Is the tension increasing? Is one character getting angrier? Are the two characters in agreement or in conflict with one another?

Well-written dialogue consists of four elements. You need to pay close attention to each of them:

1. The words each character speaks.
2. The tags, or words such as "he says" or "she asked" that indicate the speaker.
3. The gestures and actions of each character.
4. The underlying emotions of the character.

If two children are talking, try to give them different speech patterns or favorite expressions. You may want to include a few gestures that punctuate the dialogue and reflect the characterís emotions. Is she afraid? Is he angry? Show it through dialogue and gestures:


"Címon," said Albert. "Letís play Go Fish."
"No way," said Maggie avoiding his eyes. "You always cheat."
"Moi?" said Albert. "I should think not!"
"Well...all right," sighed Maggie. "Where are the cards?"

Can you tell from reading those lines, which character wants to play cards and which character is unenthusiastic? Which character the author wants the reader to like? How do the gestures work with the dialogue to convey Maggieís feelings?

Characters lie, they avoid, they scheme, and they have secrets. Keep the motives and the true feelings of your characters in mind at all times. When their feelings change, their manner of speaking changes too. Consider adding a little poetry to the soul of at least one of your characters. Let it show through the dialogue.


"Oh, it's just a seed," said Lavinia. "I thought it was a chocolate-colored fairy floating in the wind."

"What an imagination!" said Grandmother as she hung the clothes out on the roof. "Let it go, girl. We have no room for a garden here."

Practice eavesdropping. Go to a restaurant or coffee shop and sit some place where you can hear the conversation of two or more strangers. Write down snippets of conversation. Youíll probably notice that the people youíre recording repeat themselves and say "uh" or "you know." Use these snippets to write a few lines of dialogue. Add, delete, and reorder the snippets from the real conversation to get dialogue that works on the page.


Teachers report that young children donít like to read stories in dialect. Children are still trying to puzzle out the rules and conventions of standard English. Nonstandard English just confuses them, and most donít welcome another layer of difficulty added to the already perplexing process of learning to read. For this reason, you probably want to modify charactersí speech to give only a suggestion of dialect. Metaphors and expressions characteristic of a specific region, on the other hand, are perfectly fine. Hereís an example from my book Scatterbrain Sam:


"Been pininí for bird nest soup," said Maizie, friendly as ants at a picnic. "Best bird nests in the county right over yonder."

Most editors accept slang in childrenís books as long as the phrase used isnít too current or quirky. The reason for this is that slang changes quickly and may be out of date before your book is published. Expressions such as cool and awesome would probably be acceptable to most editors (though not all). These words have demonstrated some staying power and will likely be with us for some time to come. To play it safe you would be wise to avoid slang as much as possible.


Good dialogue reflects a characterís age, background, and personality.

A ten-year-old boy doesnít have the same speech patterns as a forty-year-old woman. Be aware of these differences.

Be aware how your character would react in a given situation.

Does your character have a sense of humor? Does he fly off the handle easily? Show these qualities through dialogue.

Most people use contractions when they speak.

When children speak theyíll almost always say "you arenít" instead of "you are not" and "itís" instead of "it is." Using contractions make your story childrenís speech sound more natural.

Intersperse your dialogue with body language and action.

Dialogue interspersed with action and gestures helps the reader visualize your characters. But donít overdo it. Too much action is as distracting and as too little.

Donít allow dialogue to repeat narration.

Avoid this:

Madison came in the door. He threw his books on the table and went into the kitchen to get a cookie.

"I see youíre home from school," said Mom. "How about a cookie?"

Stick with simple tags.

Use ordinary tags such as "he said" or "she asked" almost all of the time. Elaborate tags (queried, questioned, bellowed, stated, replied, responded, pointed out) are distracting and unnecessary.

Donít allow your characters to get too verbose.

Characters who talk too much are boring. Every line of dialogue needs a specific reason for its existence. Keep your story moving and your dialogue spare.

Pay attention to the developing relationships among your characters.

Peopleís feelings toward one another change over time. As your story evolves, the relationships between your characters evolve too and the changes need to be reflected in the dialogue.

Listen to real life conversations.

Listen to your friends, neighbors, and family. Take notes and keep a list of the interesting expressions you hear. Real speech can seldom be used verbatim, but it can often be reconstituted as dialogue.

Good dialogue has rhythm.

People who are stressed out speak in short, clipped sentences. People who are relaxed speak more expansively and in longer sentences. When you listen to peopleís conversations, study the music beneath the words.