Learning from a Mentor Text: Dialogue in The Season of Styx Malone

Writing believable dialogue can be one of the trickiest things about crafting a middle grade novel. A lot can go wrong with dialogue. Here are some of the common pitfalls.

So-authentic-it’s-boring dialogue:

“Hi, Jesse,” said Tom.
“Hey,” said Jesse.
“What’s up?” asked Tom.
“Not much,” said Jesse. “How are you?”
“Decent,” said Tom. “Kinda bored.”
“Yeah,” said Jesse. “Me too.”

At this point, who isn’t bored? While we want dialogue to sound like real people talking, the key is to leave out all the boring bits that don’t move the plot forward. We want dialogue to sound like real people talking – but we want real-people talk at its most dramatic, its wittiest, its funniest, and its most interesting. Skip over the small talk.

Info dump dialogue:

“Hi, Tom,” said Jesse. “I’m on my way to meet Kayla for ice cream. She’s my friend from camp, which I attend every summer for six weeks. We used to be best friends with Mia, too, but Mia didn’t go last year, and the three of us grew apart. Kayla’s hair looks just like mine, so at camp, they called us the ponytail twins.”

At this point, Tom is thinking “Why are you telling me all this?” So are readers. Sometimes writers try to use dialogue to deliver information that the reader will need later. But that only works if it’s limited in scope and feels natural. Is there a reason for this character to be telling the other character all this stuff? If not – if it’s really just there for the reader – the dialogue falls flat.

Whose-voice-is-this-really? dialogue:

“When I woke up for the first day of second grade, the fog was hanging over the lake like a dream that hadn’t fully disappeared into my subconscious upon waking…”

When we’re writing in the voice of a kid character, that voice has to be believable. So unless your character happens to be a ridiculously precocious/pretentious seven-year-old, this doesn’t work. (That said, see Lisa Yee’s book MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS for an example of a book where mature language patterns & vocabulary work beautifully as part of the characterization.)

Talking-and-nothing-else dialogue:

Take another look at that so-authentic-it’s-boring example with Tom & Jesse above. The words being spoken aren’t the only problem. Nothing else is happening while that boring conversation takes place. Even with spicier dialogue, it can help a lot if characters are doing something while they’re talking – especially if the conversation goes on a while.

Complete-sentence-or-bust dialogue:

“Hey, can you come over later on?” asked Jesse.
“I can’t come over because I have to clean my room,” said Tom.
“Do you really have to clean it today?” Jesse asked.
“My mom said I have to or I’m grounded for the weekend,” Tom said.
“That is a real bummer,” said Jesse.

Real people don’t talk like this. We use incomplete sentences and language that’s more casual. Consider this rewrite:

“Hey, can you come over later?” asked Jesse.
“Nope. Gotta clean my room,” said Tom.
Tom nodded. “Or I’m grounded for the weekend.”

Can’t-tell-who’s-who dialogue:

“Dude! We need to go to the skate park today!” said Joe.
“Dude! We totally do,” said Tom.
Pete nodded. “Dude! That’s going to be awesome!”
“Totally,” said Joe.

These guys all sound alike. If their undistinguishable voices and speech patterns keep up, readers won’t be able to tell them apart. Want to know if your characters’ voices are different enough?  Copy and paste all of one character’s lines into a blank document. Copy and paste another character’s lines into another document. Then cut them apart and mix them up. Can you sort the lines by character just by the way they talk? Can a friend who doesn’t already know all the dialogue guess who said what?

Take a look at how Kekla handled the voices of different characters in THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. These lines of dialogue are from Caleb:

“I said, I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to be…the other thing.”
“I know that song. We played it in band. It’s ‘Tarantelle.’”
“I think we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Caleb Franklin and this is my brother, Bobby Gene.”

And these are from Styx, who’s older and more worldly

“Actually, I’d like to make you a more attractive offer.”
“But I’m bringing all the expertise. Would you rather have two-thirds of nothing and a big problem on your hands, or would you rather have fifty percent of a whole lot, problem-free?”
“No relation. Neighbor, friend, mediator. I’ve come to discuss the matter of the gunnysack.”

There’s no way a reader is going to confuse the two, even if there are no dialogue tags to show who’s talking. And speaking of dialogue tags… sometimes, less is more. Back in school, some of us heard the questionable advice “said is dead” from teachers who wanted us to use more vivid dialogue tags. However well-intended this was, it can lead to passages like this:

“He’s here!” Kim shouted.
“I’ve been waiting all day,” Tim exclaimed.
“Not as long as I’ve been waiting,” Dad chuckled.
“I hope he likes the surprise party,” Tim worried.
“He’ll love it,” Kim asserted.

When you’re using dialogue tags, said is often your best bet because it doesn’t call attention to itself, interrupting the flow of the dialogue. It’s common enough to be mostly invisible, so the focus is on the story – not your impressively varied dialogue tags. But sometime you don’t need dialogue tags at all. Take a look at how Kekla handled this conversation when Bobby and Caleb were at the pond with Styx and his foster sibling, Pixie. Pay special attention to the mix of dialogue, action, and Caleb’s internal thoughts…

“Are there even fish in here?” Pixie asked.
Bobby Gene’s voice floated from above. “We’ve never seen any.” He splashed around in the shallows.
“Why did you get the nickname Pixie?” I figured it was okay to ask since we’d been talking about names earlier.
“I picked it out.”
“I have a brother now. I thought we should match.”
It took me a while to work it out. Pixie and Styx. Pixie Styx?
“You’re a freak,” I informed her.
“I’m original.” She enunciated each syllable.
She grinned, as if she knew that secretly I was thinking: No one would ever call Pixie “ordinary.”
She grinned wider. “Shut up,” she said. “You know you like me.”
“Shut up,” I said. Because I did.

This dialogue hums right along. You can hear the characters’ voices and imagine them interacting, which is a result of that balanced mix of dialogue and action. Studying dialogue in a mentor text like this is one of the best ways to get an ear for how it works.

So here’s your assignment for today. Choose a few dialogue-heavy pages of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE to mark up. Photocopy those pages, just for this exercise, if you don’t want to mark up your book. Get five different colored highlighters or colored pencils, and use them to highlight the following elements in those dialogue sections:

Color 1 – Characters’ dialogue in quotes
Color 2 – Dialogue tags like he said, she asked, etc.
Color 3 – Action that’s happening while the characters talk.
Color 4 – Internal thoughts from the narrator.
Color 5 – Other description mixed in with the dialogue.

When you finish, take a look at the balance. Then, take a passage from your own writing, or imagine a new conversation between some characters you make up (Kids at a soccer game? Moms with toddler at an ice cream stand? Astronaut pals making plans for the day?)  and try to create that same sort of balance in a written conversation. If you’d like to share what you wrote for today, feel free to visit this post on my blog (www.katemessner.com/blog). To leave a comment, you’ll have to click on the title of the blog post and then scroll down to the bottom. Happy writing!

1 Reply on “Learning from a Mentor Text: Dialogue in The Season of Styx Malone

  1. This is so very interesting! I never thought about all the things to consider with dialogue before. Your examples are so helpful, and it makes me appreciate the skillful artist that crafted this wonderful book all the more. I am inspired!