I love writing MG and YA dialogue. Probably because I teach in a middle school and my days are spent with nearly 600 children between the ages of 12 and 14. It’s safe to say I’m hip to all the modern lingo and know exactly how dramatic one can truly be due to over-plucked eyebrows (three days out of school, of course).
But dialogue is one of the trickiest things to write well, no matter what age group you’re writing for. It has to have a purpose, first of all, and it has to hit the reader’s “reader ear” in an authentic way – but it can’t be written authentically.
Wait. Not written authentically?
Was that a typo?
People interrupt each other, use sounds and grunts in place of words, and wave their arms around to indicate many different inflections. Put that hot mess on the page and you will drive your readers insane. On top of that, readers automatically fill in gaps as they read. You don’t have to spell everything out for them. In fact, they’re going to get bored and put down your book if you do.
What I mean is, you’re dialogue should follow few simple rules so that it comes off as “authentic” to the reader, even though it’s anything but.
- Dialogue just for the sake of dialogue is boring.
“Hi, Joan. How was your day?”
“Great Mark! And yours?”
Can we say snooze-fest? There is no purpose to this dialogue. Do we do this in real life? Of course, but it makes for a horrible story. This type of dialogue has no place in your novel.
Dialogue should deepen characters, engage them in conflict, or maybe (and I mean maybe) reveal information to the reader–sparingly.
- Well-written dialogue is every bit as concise as “real life” dialogue, often even more so. Shorten that stuff down. I mean realllly shorten it down.
What we tend to write: “Do you happen to have any butter for the toast?”
What we say in real life: “Got any butter?”
What we should write: I slid the plate of toast toward me, avoiding Karen’s eyes. “Butter?”
People rarely speak in complete sentences, let alone grammatically correct sentences. As long as the reader knows they’re eating toast in this scene, the reader will figure it out. Trust your reader. Which leads me to my next point…
- Vary up your dialogue tags and action beats. If you can show what’s going on through action beats, your dialogue doesn’t carry all the responsibility for communicating what’s happening. Yes, “said” and “asked” are perfectly fine, but they shouldn’t be the only thing you use. This is also an excellent way to eliminate unnecessary adverbs and exclamation points.
What we tend to write: “Get out!” Mark shouted angrily.
What we should write: Mark flung the door open, pointing to the cab idling by the curb. “Get out.”
See what I did there? Which scene do you see more clearly in your mind? Which example carries the most emotion?
The exclamation point is gone (you only get so many to use in your lifetime, you know) and “shouted angrily” tells me nothing. Another writer whose opinion I trust and admire, Naomi Hughes, tweeted about this same thing just the other day. It seems like a small detail, but the impact on your writing is immense.
If you find you’re still stuck trying to get decent dialogue on the page, open up some of your favorite books (preferably ones published in the past ten years or so) and take a peek at the dialogue. Notice the ebb and flow, the way the author gives certain speech patterns to different characters, how the sentences are chopped to the bare minimum. Practice, practice, practice….and always read it out loud.