Oct 18, 2010

5 Key Objectives of Dialogue

The online course on writing for children that I'm taking included a module on dialogue. This is an area of weakness for me. I'm not a big talker and as a result, neither are my characters.

According to Nancy Lamb in The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, good dialogue should achieve the following:

  1. Reveal Character - your character's personality will show if they speak casually or stiffly.
  2. Create an Authentic Voice - you know you've captured your characters' voices perfectly when they can carry on a conversation without identity tags (Peter said, Sheila pointed out). Catch phrases can help.
  3. Avoid Trendy Slang - but surely you want to capture the current lingo of teens so they will relate? Truth is, it will quickly date your novel, teen talk evolves at such a rate that by the time your book is published and release it will seem  like you are are out of touch or a 'try-hard' (which is probably an outdated term by now).
  4. Be Distinctive - you might have a group of teen girls all from the same small town, but if they all speak to similarly, your reader will get confused between them. Make all your characters individual.
  5. Create action - instead of creating long expositions, break up dialogue with action in the dialogue tags. Have a character speak wringing their hands, or pacing up and down.
I've added this book to my library and am really loving it. It outlines all aspects of writing children's stories in a simple, accessible language.

Our assignment for the course was to submit a piece showing dialogue of a main character meeting someone for the first time. I'll share my example, but it did lack one key element... actual dialogue.

Justin trudged down the steps to the subway. Sleep, lots of sleep. Except his olds will probably wake him and be on his case about staying out late, wasting his life, whatever. As if he hadn’t had a crap enough night already. Sally ditched him for that muscle jerk. 5 weeks of relationship obviously meant nothing to her.
“Big night?”
Justin looked to his left to see a woman in a suit with jet-black hair.
“Saw you at Mulligan’s earlier didn’t I? Kate Simons,” The woman said.
The lights of the train came in from the right. Justin shifted from one foot to the other. Was he being picked up?
“Justin,” he said, not sure if he should offer his hand.
Where was Sally? Maybe she realised she’d made a mistake. Maybe she was sorry. Justin pulled his phone from his coat pocket. No missed calls. He shoved it back in.
The train slowed as it pulled in.
Kate Simons was now standing right in front of Justin and placed her hands on his shoulders.
Stuff Sally. Justin smiled at Kate.
The doors opened. Kate roughly shoved Justin back away from the doors and spun around.
“Hey!” Justin said as two big guys stepped out of the carriage. All three ignored him.
“Simons,” Number one big guy said.
Number two big guy opened his jacket to give Kate a glimpse of his gun.
“Wha?” Justin stepped back in confusion. Before he could work out what was going on, Kate leapt forward and punched number one big guy right in the throat. He gasped and gurgled while Kate swept around and kicked number two big guy’s feet from under him. She elbowed his thick skull as he went down.
“Wha?” Justin said.
Two more big guys came down the steps with their guns pointed.
“Justin down!” Kate said.
“Wha?” Justin started, but with the first bullet whizzing by him, he dove to the ground.
Kate dove down too, but only to grab the gun from the holster of number two big guy and spin to shoot both men. They tumbled down the stairs.
The train doors closed.
A whole group of big guys with guns started down the stairs.
“Crap!” Justin said. He jumped up and ran to the train doors. They wouldn’t open!
Justin looked around panicked as the train pulled away from him. As Kate and the new big guys exchanged fire, Justin said, “This is a bad idea.” With a lack of options, he sprang onto the back of the train, clinging to the window washer.
He held his hand out, “Kate!”
She turned and winked, but made no effort to join him.
Justin watched as Kate cheerfully waved to him while shooting it out with the new big guys. Dumbfounded, Justin waved back. The train turned the bend and she was out of sight.
Justin breathed. Then, a buzz in his pocket. Sally? Justin reached for his phone, only, it wasn’t his? He looked at the screen.
Justin, We need to meet up. Simons.

How do you handle dialogue?


  1. Great post on dialogue. It applies to writing for all ages... not just children. Lou

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  2. Even when you have your scene written where it's all dialogue, it's good to then go back and add in a tag or two. If the back-and-forth goes on too long, readers can grow weary, just as they do if it's pages of description or back story. Break it up a bit. Your scene was a good example of breaking it up.

  3. Well, I'm no expert, but I wanted to applaud after reading your exercise. It let's me know how little I know. I thought it was wonderful, so full of action. I guess I didn't focus on the dialogue but I could have kept reading for the story.

    I admire you so much. I wish I had the determination to take courses and really learn.

  4. Lou - Yes, I guess children do expect the same standard (if not higher sometimes) as adults in their fiction. Good point.

    Helen - Good reminder, must watch out for those talking heads. Loved your blog on animals point of view!

    Myrna - You are one of those special people put on earth to make everyone feel good about themselves. Make sure you take some of that flattery back - I've read your poetry, it's brilliant!

  5. I took a workshop this weekend where we discussed creating lexicons for each major character to keep even the narration w/in character. Great stuff.

  6. Oh, my gosh, Charmaine! This post is like buried treasure for me. Dialogue is definitely an area of focus for me. I am buying that book...now!

    p.s. My storytelling cards came and I love them. You are priceless! :-)

  7. M Pax - I'm resolving to take on more workshops next year, worth their weight in gold!

    Shannon - I'm so glad you like the cards, they're just soo beautiful, I photocopy and laminated copies to use in the classroom (I didn't want them to get bent or torn).

  8. I love dialogue. I think it's my strongpoint.
    I remember writing my first dialogue in grade 2

  9. Dialogue is a bit tricky for me too but not because I'm not a big talker. LOL. I'm hearing impaired and so eavesdropping is difficult and I miss so much of HOW people say things sometimes. I manage somehow though. Reading a lot helps, and that ever blessed question..."WHAT?". Ha ha.

  10. Dialogue to me is really hard. I have that problem (like you said) of making the characters sound too much alike.

  11. Great post, I especially like the point about not using slang. It is true that slang dates really quickly.

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