Good morning! Ready for today’s Teachers Write mini-lesson? It’s all about dialogue – with guest author Megan Frazer Blakemore.
Megan is the author of great books like THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL. (Fun fact: Megan and I share an editor at Bloomsbury – the terrifically talented Mary Kate Castellani, so we get to sign together at conferences sometimes. That is the best. 🙂
You want Buffy the Vampire Slayer not Dawson’s Creek.
That’s the easiest way I can think of to describe how to write dialogue spoken by kids.
Sashi Kaufman, a young adult writer, puts it this way: “Your dialogue should be your average teenager on their smartest, wittiest day.”
Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) takes it a little bit farther: “Nobody but nobody will believe me on this, but the best dialogue sounds not at all like human beings talking in real life.”
And adult author Adam Mansbach says: “It’s got to ring true without being overly slavish to the boring and inarticulate ways people often speak in real life.”
Essentially what we are all saying is that dialogue should be true, but not necessarily realistic. It needs to be specific to the character’s age, location, background, etc., but it also needs to read well.
As teachers, you have the tremendous gift of hearing kids talk all day long. You know what they sound like. You probably hear it in your sleep. When I was working in a school as a librarian, I would keep a journal with things I overheard. On the other hand, you don’t want to be to beholden to what you hear. You need to give your characters room to be poetic, even if your students don’t always get there.
What follows are some bulleted thoughts on dialogue to keep in mind as you write.
Potential Pitfalls in Dialogue
- The exposition fairy: one character tells another character things they both know as a way of telling the reader.
- Avoiding contractions: people use them, and so should your characters, even if your prose is more formal.
- Speechifying: If dialogue goes on for more than three sentences, check to see if you should limit what they are saying. (This isn’t a hard and fast rule, like “Dialogue must not go on for more than three sentences.” – just something to think about in revision.)
- Adverbs with dialogue tags. “Stop!” he said urgently. Your dialogue should be doing the work. If you think you need an adverb, revise your dialogue.
- Similarly, avoiding dialogue tags. He bellowed, She whimpered, etc. Stick with the basics, — otherwise it’s distracting. You might not even need dialogue tags. Lately I’ve been ruthlessly cutting them in my own work, and find the conversation flows much better.
- Slang: Youth slang changes very, very quickly. I mean, YOLO, right?
- Profanity: If it’s profanity, it’s going to make it harder to get your work on school and library shelves. I don’t think I’m shocking anyone with this here. You need to decide how you feel about the role of profanity in your book, and in books for children in general. Is it necessary? Does it fit the characters? Then use it. Otherwise, reconsider.
Some Dialogue Tips:
- Read your dialogue aloud. Even better: have someone else read it while you listen.
- Make up your own slang.
- This works especially well in SciFi or fantasy (think Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica)
- Find ways to be creatively minimize profanity
o Inspired by Norman Mailer, characters in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines use Fug instead of that other F word. This makes perfect sense in the context of the book, because the characters are smart and would be reading Norman Mailer, but also the kinds of kids who would take joy in the fact that “you can say it in class without getting into trouble.” (Chapter 12)
- Think about what your characters are doing while they are speaking. “I love you” means something very different if a character is staring into her crush’s eyes than it does if it’s mumbled while she eats a sandwich.
I’ve given you some thoughts on dialogue, and now it’s time to get to work. This exercise has two parts.
Part 1: He Said, She Said
To make sure your focus on dialogue, write a scene using only dialogue and minimal tags (“he said”, “she said” — hence the title of this exercise). This prompt is one of my favorites and it was suggested to me long ago by the author Saundra Mitchell: two characters having an argument about cheese. At least one of your characters should be a child or teen.
Part 2: Setting the Scene
In my first novel, Secrets of Truth & Beauty, Dara goes to live with her sister who she has never really known. All summer they are dancing around the secrets of their past, and the moment finally came for them to talk about it. I wrote the conversation, and it felt too raw. The novel is set on a goat farm, so I moved the scene so that Dara and her sister are cutting the hooves of the goats as they talk. This changed their physical relationship to one another. They aren’t sitting across a table or in a car; there’s a little distance. The slow pace of the work also served to slow down the conversation. Something you should always ask yourself is: Where are my characters and what are they doing?
Take your He Said / She Said scene and now place it in a context. Actually, multiple contexts. Write and rewrite the scene in three out of six of the following places:
- A tree house
- A mall
- A sailboat on the ocean with no wind
- On a carnival ride
- Free choice
For part two of this exercise, you are now encouraged to flesh out the scene with details about the surrounding including both the setting and the actions the characters take. In other words, you are no longer limited to “He said”/”She said”, so add those sensory details and character reactions. A good example of what I mean comes from Terry, who has the first comment on this post.
 From: The Secret Mystery: The Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcón (Henry Holt, 2010) This is a great reference for writers. In it, Alarcón interviews several authors on issues relating to the writing process. Wonderful for dipping in and out of.
Note from Kate: We’d love to see some of your writing from today’s lesson. Share away in the comments if you’re feeling brave!