Jersey Farm Scribe here on…
A Dialogue Tune-up: Mastering Kid-Speak
Dialogue is one of the most important pieces of any manuscript, and this often goes double for children’s works. Dialogue moves the story along, develops the connection between your readers and the characters and keeps things tangible and realistic.
That means that mastering Kid-Speak is unequivocally important.
There is a rhyme and rhythm to the way that kids communicate, where they pause to think, how they choose their words, the direction their stream of conscious takes them in. I’ve often wondered if there are linguists who study children specifically. I bet we could learn a lot about the development of the brain and human instincts by looking at how and why kids pick their words.
As writers, if our characters don’t sound realistic, we’ve already lost the battle. It’s something a child will instantly and instinctively pick up on. The character will seem fake and they won’t bond with them. Even in a plot-driven story, if the readers don’t connect with the characters, the story won’t resonate.
Here are a few things you can do to work on the dialogue in your stories:
Listening to children talk is one of my favorite things to do. This can be a bit trickier to do with older kids. Teenagers aren’t big on you overhearing their devastatingly important and secret information. But there’s a great trick to overcome that. Stick two or more kids in the back of a car and drive around a while. Even teenagers will fairly quickly forget that you can probably hear them and get swept up in the excitement of their chatter. When hushed whispers are completely ignored, they often become full-volume conversations within a few minutes.
It’ll be a hit with the other adults in your life too! The fact that I’m quick to volunteer for anything kid and car-pool related is a much-appreciated running joke among my friends and family.
Listen to yourself:
Most writers understand the value of reading the dialogue sections of a manuscript out-loud. But you can take this even further. Record yourself reading it. Play it back. Have someone else read it to you. Have multiple someones read it to you.
Better yet, have an age-appropriate child read it to you. See how it sounds coming from them. Does it sound natural? Stale? Funny? Bland? Vocabulary that encourages learning and reaching is excellent when carefully placed in children’s books. But (unless it’s your character’s quirk) you want to keep the dialogue age-appropriate.
Hearing how the lines sound with the natural intonation of a child’s voice can be a simple and surprisingly effective way of polishing up the dialogue.
Give Everyone Their Own Unique Voice
If you ask five kids the same question, you will get five different responses, even if they all have the same general answer. You have a voice as a writer. Be sure each of your characters has a voice of their own as well.
We all have our little verbal tics, especially kids. Some are simple speakers, short, two to three word sentences. Some seem to look for any opportunity to use flowery, descriptive words. They know different words based on who and what occupies the majority of their time.
A friend’s five year old used the word “bonemeal” when he was commenting on my conversation with his mother about my garden next year. Turns out, it’s basically a type of fertilizer in Minecraft. I was amazed that he made the connection to a real-life garden, but it was just his natural Kid-Speak.
A great test for this is to pull out all the dialogue in your manuscript and see if you can tell who said what without even looking at the character name.
It’s not an easy test. But for me, it’s given me great perspective on places I need to have the opportunity to personalize and develop that critical bond between my readers, and the characters they’re going to take the journey with.
Dialogue does so much in our manuscripts. It allows us to remove unnecessary words, breaks up long, difficult to read paragraphs, advances the story, gives us relatable realism and lets us see how a character thinks. Take these opportunities to really let the uniqueness of your characters shine, and capture your readers.
Kid-Speak varies for different ages, backgrounds and situations, making it a versatile and powerful tool to make your story, and your character jump off the page and into the reader’s heart.
Your character’s personalities, and your manuscripts, are worth it.
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thank you Erika for another great post. I always enjoy them.