Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 10, 2020

Writing Believable Dialogue For Kids

Creating Believable Middle Grade and Chapter Book Dialogue

We at The Children’s Book Academy spend a lot of time thinking (and teaching) about what makes great chapter book and middle grade book writing.  Much of the power and glory of books aimed at this age comes down to the writer’s skill at writing believable kid’s dialogue. Let’s talk some more about this idea.

Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series is the quintessential example –it offers that interesting mix of illustration and written words that occupy the middle ground between picture books and older middle grade  novels (the subtitle of the series is A Novel in Cartoons, marking its distinction from graphic novels).  Kinney was one of the first to popularize this hugely successful mixed media approach, which mimics the look of notebook paper doodles and writing, and he has many imitators. However, the other aspect of Gregg Heffley’s struggles to survive school that is so engaging is the appeal of Kinney’s dialogue.

Take a look at the opening page of the first Wimpy Kid book.  While this may not necessarily be what we traditionally think of as dialogue, the stream of conscious narration of Gregg is entirely believable as the voice of a thirteen-year-old.  

Take a look (or listen) at this bit from Lisa Yee’s first Millicent Min: Girl Genius book?  You get a palpable sense of Millicent, Tommy, and Amy in this brief snippet, their characters communicated in bursts of dialog.  Or what about this excerpt from A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban whose main character fancies herself a piano prodigy?  The brilliant description of the mother’s sigh (not even a word or a full sentence, just a sound) brings the entire scene to life.

I’m sure we all know great dialogue when we hear but how do we create it?  Here’s some proverbial food for thought. First, middle grade novels are dialogue heavy. Crack open a couple of books from your bookshelf: get a picture book, a chapter book, a middle grade one, and a young adult novel. Randomly open them. Notice anything? Characters in books aimed at middle grade novel readers talk a lot. They tend to be roughly half dialogue with the rest split between narrative (sometimes another form of dialog) and action. There are no hard and fast rules, but try to let dialogue, emotion, and action dominate and use narration sparingly.

It’s not just the actual sentences that come out of a character’s mouth, it’s also the words, the unfinished thoughts, the pauses, the filler words, and the sounds. Also, real dialogue doesn’t even have to be spoken out loud. Interior monologues (the character’s thoughts) also count. Always be showing your reader how people are feeling and what events are happening, in contrast to heavy handedly telling them.

These are some perhaps lesser known works with amazing dialogue. Check out Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez for lots of realistic girl-to-girl dialog in this book centered around an alternative scout troop that takes up bird hunting.  For a great peak at boy friendships set in a perilous urban environment, take a taste of Paula Chase’s writing in Dough Boys. If you’d like to meet an unforgettable heroine, how about reading The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart?  Maybe step into the mind of a girl struggling with self-hate in Alicia D. Williams’s Genesis Begins Again. These books offer insights into character and plot driven by incredible dialogue.

When writing believable dialogue, avoid the cliche of having too many smart-mouthed, snarky, know-it-all characters. While I’m sure we’ve all known a few, most tweens talk like 8-12 year old kids–lots of random asides, parallel talking, silliness, minor competitiveness, upcoming parties or holidays, family stuff.  Nothing too deep or feeling-centered or delving into the meaning of life. Most kids also talk differently among themselves than they do in other environments when adults or even other aged kids are around. If you don’t have kids this age, hang out near them at the local library or mall and listen in.  

Here are some suggestions to help you start on the path to writing believable middle grade level dialogue.

  • Read preteens’ reviews of MG books on Amazon & Goodreads. What do they think is sooo boring or sooo dumb? And what do they love?  Get a sense of how they sound and what they love to hear in terms of written dialogue.
  • Enrich each character with layers of personal detail and quirks. Create multi-faceted characters and resist stereotypes. Make the boys ice skaters and the girls baseball players. Maybe you have an anti-hero bully character who’s secretly lonely and spoils their cat?
  • Eavesdrop. Listen to how middle grade kids talk. They have lots to say about the world as they learn new ways to articulate themselves and navigate the world.  I’m sure there’s a grateful parent or two who would lend you a couple of kids to chauffeur around.    
  • Experiment on kids. Take advantage of free labor and grab a middle grader and have them read your manuscript or idea out loud. Does it sound right, is it natural?  Do they think it sounds right, or are they rolling their eyes
  • Get into your character’s head and heart–what are her dreams, hopes, fears?  What does she look like, sound like, do for fun? Where does she live? What’s her family like? Try to create as fully rounded a character as possible. Make a mind map or web with your character in the center. List these things on the outside,  and all around the edges write the kinds of words and sayings they might use.
  • Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.  Don’t try too hard. Let your character speak to you. Any place you get stuck can be fixed later. Just let the voice flow naturally.
  • Diction (Word Choice and Sentence Structure) Is the vocabulary sophisticated? Simple? Formal? Informal? Is there a regional dialect, a foreign language, or slang?  What is the rhythm of the writing?  Do you use stream-of-consciousness fragments?  What kind of imagery does the narrator or character use?
  • Narration and interior monologue and thoughts can all count as dialogue. Be flexible and inventive.
  • Use dialogue to salt clues, define character, and bring in needed information.  Phone calls and eavesdropping or accidentally overhearing are great ways to offer clues and information and move the action of the story along.
  • Hook your reader early: use actions and reactions to draw them into your story.
  • Show, don’t tell, your reader – this is always the mantra for writers. So make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious or didactic.  

So. give it a whirl.  See if any of our reading or writing suggestions has inspired you to begin or refinish some of your middle grade novel dialogue.  We hope it has!

 If you want a systematic education in all aspects of writing chapter books and/or middle grade novels with lots of individual hand-holding, register for our upcoming Middle Grade Mastery e-course at The Children’s Book Academy, starting June 15th – bit.ly/2020MGM

Or sign up for our free class airing June 6th on creating marketable chapter and middle grade books – bit.ly/CBA-MG-FREE

Mira, thank you for sharing this with us. Good info.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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