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Writing Captivating Dialogue for Children

by Mary Emma Allen

The children's story I was asked to critique began with description, continued with description, contained some dialogue here and there, and ended with description.The author seemed to think that simply telling the story was adequate and didn't realize that stories without dialogue are borrrrring.

An editor who spoke at a regional SCBWI conference mentioned that the story must catch the reader's attention (whether editor, child, or parent) at the very beginning, then continue to hold the attention with a variation of dialogue and description.

Yes, years ago, the stories of your childhood may have contained a great deal of description. However, most editors mention that children of today are used to the excitement of television, videos, and interactive CDs. So stories must rivet the readers.

We writers have dialogue as one of the best methods of capturing and holding their readers' attention.

(Even some of my stories, published awhile ago, might need to have the opening changed if I submitted them to editors today.)

Write True-to-Life Dialogue

When writing dialogue, consider putting words into the mouths of your characters that sound real, the way children talk and think. When I first began writing children's stories (before I had anything published), I let the professor for my children's lit class read some. Lillian encouraged me to continue writing, but said, "Mary, you'll begin getting stories published when you're teaching children (I was receiving a degree in elementary education that semester) or when you have children of your own."

I didn't want to hear that! I wanted to be published now. However, while taking a class with the Institute of Children's Literature a few years later, my first story was accepted and published. I think the main difference between that story and some of my previous ones was the dialogue.

Yes, I had to think and talk like a child. By that time I had a daughter of my own, tutored children, taught Sunday School, was a 4-H leader, and often babysat my nieces and nephews.

Tips For Writing Dialogue

Suggestions to keep in mind when writing dialogue:

1. Listen to children/think like children. In one of the lessons for the Institute class I was instructed to write about an incident in a child's life in two ways... from the child's viewpoint and from mine. That forced me to listen to what children in real life were really saying and how they were saying it, instead of putting my words into my characters' mouths.

2. Be around children. If you don't have children or grandchildren, find opportunities to be around children. Babysit for relatives and friends occasionally, volunteer at a school, become a leader for a youth group. A mother of a teen wanted to write for younger children. After attending one of my classes and hearing me recommend working with children, she began volunteering in the local school at the grade level she wanted to write for. She later told me this really helped her look at situations through the eyes of youngsters.

3. Study children's writing and what they have to say. Find opportunities to read what children write. There are some web sites and ezines now that publish the writing of young people. Also, volunteer to work with youngsters or teach a writing class at your school. Learn how youngsters express themselves. Become aware of the situations that are important to them. One unpublished children's author volunteered to teach writing at her daughter's sixth grade periodically for six months. The result was a book of the students' writing which she helped them edit and compile.

4. Read current stories and books for young people. Saturate yourself with current magazine stories and books of the age level for which you wish to write. This is not to say you'll copy these stories, but they will give you an idea of the dialogue that appeals to editors and children. Ask your librarian about the most popular books for specific age levels... which books are most in demand by children (or parents if the children don't read yet).

5. Read your dialogue aloud. Read your stories aloud, or tape them and listen to them. Do the characters sound like the children they're supposed to be portraying?

6. Read to children. Read your stories to children and get their reaction. This is more practical with older children for they usually will give you specific feedback. When my daughter was a teen, she'd read my stories and tell me whether the characters sounded like today's youngsters or whether I was falling back on the language of my era.

7. Read diaries and letters. Even when your story is set in the past, your characters need to sound like normal youngsters who will appeal to young readers of today. Your characters of other eras won't use today's slang or expressions, but they shouldn't be stilted and boring. Reading letters and diaries written by youngsters of days ago will help you get the feel of the words they used, the expressions of those times which will still make them sound their age but fit in with their setting. For instance, when I read letters written by my great great grandmother, who was a Quaker, they're filled with thee and thou. If I wrote a story with her children as characters, they would use similar expressions.

8. Write a letter. When having trouble with dialogue, try writing a letter from your characters to someone else, or have them write diary entries. You may not use this practice writing in your book or story, but it can help you get to know how your character thinks and talks. Dialogue can make a story interesting or dull. However, without it a story for today's readers certainly loses appeal.

Copyright © 2000 Mary Emma Allen
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Mary Emma Allen is a children's writer and teacher. She is a graduate from the Institute of Children's Literature and has had more than 200 stories published in magazines and anthologies. A number of her stories and poems, along with her illustrations, appear in her book, Tales of Adventure & Discovery. Visit Mary Emma's web site: http://maryemmallen.blogspot.com/.

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