Writing Good Children's Dialogue

Dialogue's one of those things that’s hard to get right, and easy to notice. Natural, flowing conversation is, in fact, pretty much a myth made up by playwrights. Listen to any group of people - any two people, even - and you notice that human speech is a big mess made up of cut-off sentences, contractions, terrible grammar, pointless asides, and interruptions. It's wonderful - true speech, real, living language being used and enjoyed. For writers, though, it can be a hurdle to overcome. You can't actually write speech verbatim; the fact it's being written and read, instead of heard, draws attention to those things we're accustomed to skipping over, and forces a reader to focus on the wrong things. A short example:

The man stepped down from the gleaming train. 
'Mr. Urge,' he said, and it wasn't a question.
'Yes,' said Urge.
'Good. Nice to meet you.'
Urge stuck out his hand. 'And you. An OK trip?'
'Not bad. A few complications when the carriage caught fire, but once the monkeys were taken care of there really wasn't any further bother until France.'
'Monkeys are often quite trying,’ said Urge.
The man nodded sadly. 'Yes. They didn't seem to like the snakes at all.'
'Well, it's understandable.'


The man stepped down from the gleaming train.
'Mr. Urge,' he said, and it wasn't a question.
'Oh, yes,' said Urge.
'Oh, good. Nice to meet you. Just -'
Urge stuck out his hand. 'I - oh, sorry. No, yes, and you. An OK ... OK trip?'
'Not bad. A few, y'know, a few complications when the carriage - the carriage caught on fire. Was OK once the monkeys were taken care of then there ... there wasn't any more bother after that, then.' Till France.'
'Monkeys are often quite trying,' said urge.
The man nodded sadly. 
'Sorry, you go.'
'No, I was just going to say, they didn't seem like - to like the snakes. Didn't seem to like them.'
'Ah, OK. Makes sense.'

They seem hesitant, unsure, and not at all brooding or fun - but that's how people talk, all cut up and confused. In conversation, with tone of voice to help us, it doesn't seem jumpy at all. In writing, it does - so we pretend that people always say what they mean and rarely get cut-off.

Writing children’s dialogue can pose an extra set of problems. Kids, for all their wonder and joy, are often terrible communicators. They get too wrapped up in the moment, or hold back too much out of sheer apathy. They have an entire way of speaking that adults just don't, one that goes way beyond slang and shows a whole way of relating to the world. Authors who write children's books need to remember that if you write for kids, as a kid, you have to learn to sound like a kid.

And here, Elmore Leonard comes to mind:

 If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

So what are some good ways to write children’s dialogue?

  1. Hesitate, ponder, and cut in. Remember the energy and passion that children never bother to hide. If they’re talking they’re talking at once.
  2. Don't use slang unless you know it lasts. I think it’s safe to say that ‘cool’ has proved its worth, and that ‘groovy’ has died a sad death.
  3. Watch out for names, and replace them when you can. Adults respect and use names, but children have a fantastic range of filler words – mate, dude, man, etc, etc.
  4. Contract. Constantly and wherever you can, make things shorter. Don’t, won’t, can’t, innit? 
  5. Relate to others as they are. Adults might treat others as equals, but children just don't. Strangers don’t get the same treatment as family, and adults aren't the same as friends. Show this.
  6. Don't notice boring things. And don't forget your senses. When children talk about something, do they describe it the same way as adults? Or do they see the better parts, the brighter colours?
  7. Break rules only if you need to. Making children speak in painfully ungrammatical sentences as a lazy way of showing that they’re - look! - children is a cheat that doesn't work. If it fits a character, go for it, but children’s dialogue doesn't just equal double negatives and saying ‘ain't’
  8. Be wary of sarcasm. The idea of a teenager dripping with disdain and sarcasm for every adult remark is flat, dull, and pointless. Adults are more sarcastic than children. Children are much more direct, even with their anger.
  9. Learn. Read other books by children’s authors and look at the way speech patterns work. Philip Pullman’s fantastic at this – His Dark Materials' Will and Lyra are natural, unforced, genuine characters.
  10. Ask. If you’re not sure, find a child and ask them. If you want honest criticism, there’s nothing better. Just be ready. Children can be SO MEAN.
And that's it, really, as far as my thoughts go. Spend time with children, see what they like, see what they read, and constantly remember that adults are uncool, silly, boring, and just don't get it. The most we can hope for are a few rare moments when we manage to say something real and true, that adults and kids - just people, really - enjoy.

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