How to write strong dialogue in children’s books


Thanks again to all who attended our SCBWI British Isles teach-in on 1 February at Edinburgh’s Central Library, looking at how to write strong dialogue in children’s books. Below are the collected tips shared by the group, and notice of Strong Beginnings: our upcoming writer’s craft workshop on 29 March, hosted by Keith Gray. Read on!

Our February teach-in was the latest in a series of get-togethers Louise and I organise as part of our work coordinating the Southeast Scotland network of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI British Isles). The teach-ins attract a range of children’s writers and illustrators for books and television, ranging from picture books and younger readers up through young adult. We come along and trade knowledge we’ve gained from our own writing, courses and readings.

Our next event isn’t a teach-in; it’s our first dedicated writer’s craft workshop, led by award-winning children’s writer Keith Gray on 29 March in Edinburgh. Strong Beginnings & the War of Attention will examine how we can grab the attention of the modern reluctant reader. Do come along! This intensive two-hour session will be a fully interactive workshop exploring intriguing, unique and above all attention-grabbing openings to your stories. Using famous examples as well as workshopping your own ideas, Keith will discuss what he considers to be the Big 4 Hooks: Situation, Mood, Character and Incident. (Not forgetting that hooking in an agent or editor can often feel like a battle with the most reluctant reader of all). The workshop is £12  for members of SCBWI and £15 for non-members. Get more information and book your ticket for Strong Beginnings here.

Top tips on writing strong dialogue

But now back to dialogue! Here are the collected tips from the fabulously engaged bunch who came to the February teach-in:

  1. Dialogue is action: Louise mentioned it was a breakthrough for her to grasp that dialogue is action: it can move the plot on, reveal more about the characters and the relationships, and also incorporate physical action. Dialogue can and should multitask.
  2. To “said” or not to “said”?  Writers get themselves into a twist about whether to use this tag, but Keith mentioned that “said” can easily fade into the background. Modifiers, for example “said angrily,” can lead to lazy writing. Why not show his balled fists or nostrils flaring? Keith pointed out that Elmore Leonard, writer of Rum Punch (which became Jackie Brown the movie) only uses “said” or “asked” and is no fan of adverbs: read more in Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.
  3. “Show not tell” in dialogue: using adverbs in dialogue is another example of the dreaded “telling” that writers must minimise. Vivid description is more satisfying for readers, who prefer to draw the conclusion that the speaker is angry rather than being told how he spoke. Maureen Lynas from SCBWI British Isles Northeast network wrote about this as the “gap” that readers like to fill for themselves. Read more: Maureen says, “Show not tell.”
  4. Physical descriptions to reveal emotion: Keith mentioned the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman, a great summary of body language which reveals emotion. Louise also mentioned the importance of showing the response to what other people are saying: are they staying silent? Do they have a physical action which contradicts what they’re saying? (“Oh, how kind,” she said, digging her nails into her palm.)
  5. Look who’s talking now: Anita and Emily agreed that you should be able to cover the names on a page of dialogue and still know who’s speaking. Sometimes you can reveal who’s speaking by using nicknames: perhaps no one calls your protagonist “Pumpkin” except her father, which can minimise your need to write, “Dad said.”
  6. Dialect spelling in dialogue: deciding whether to reveal your character’s accent by phonetic spellings can be tricky. Sean decided simply to have another character muse that he had “never heard a Bronx accent before.” Stephanie mentioned that she wrote her first draft of a southern American accented character using lal phonetic spellings because that helped her during the draft-one process, but she removed many of them during editing.
  7. Shut up, he explained: Sean referenced this William Noble book as an excellent guide to the uses and misuses of dialogue.
  8. What does your character want? Emily mentioned that what each character wants should affect how they speak and what they do. Referencing some tips from Kirstie Swain, Emily said it’s important to love the characters you’re writing, which will help you know what their reaction will be in any situation.
  9. Go to a café: both Emily and Sarah recommended listening to conversations among people in cafés and buses, which is a good way to find real authenticity in speech. Don’t want to look like a crazy writer stalking the public with your notepad? Put in earphones to make it look as if you’re listening to music and no one will be the wiser!
  10. Use punctuation to reveal: Elizabeth mentioned she likes to use punctuation ungramatically in dialogue in order to reveal character: for example “Best. Thing. Ever.” or having a character who uses no full stops when speaking.
  11. Vocal tics: Keith discussed how personality can be revealed in dialogue, for example allowing a nervous character to be repetitive. Keith also took us through an analysis of the dialogue choices he made in his short story “Burying Barker,” including paraphrasing parts of a conversation for pace, and showing state of mind through descriptions of body language woven through dialogue.
  12. Brilliant dialogue and picture books: Sarah and others mentioned how dialogue and pictures work together in picture books and may contradict each other. In the classic John Klassen book I Want My Hat Back (spoiler alert), a rabbit who has clearly stolen a bear’s hat swears he hasn’t seen it, even though he’s wearing it as he speaks. In true picture-book fashion, there is repetition in the dialogue “have you seen my hat?” and a lovely about-turn at the end, where the bear is asked if he’s seen the rabbit, and replies just as evasively as the rabbit did earlier. See this remarkable blog post on one kindergarten class’s experience of being read aloud the John Klassen book. Other picture books recommended at the teach-in for insight on dialogue include Lane Smith’s It’s a Book and Jez Alborough‘s Where’s my Teddy?
  13. More recommended reading on writing strong dialogue: Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris (formerly known as Bringing Your Characters to Life); Nicola Morgan’s dialogue techniques and writing killer dialogue.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this summary, would you like to share this or our upcoming Keith Gray workshop with a friend?

Photo credit: He said She said by Taeyoon Choi on Flickr

6 Replies to “How to write strong dialogue in children’s books”

    1. That’s brilliant thank you Christina! We need to do payment the old-fashioned way so you’ll see the downloadable booking form that you can fill out and send by post with payment. I’m so excited you’ll be joining us!

  1. Hi Sheila, this is great. I was really disappointed to miss this one but your summary is an excellent resource. Sadly I will be in NYC for Keith’s workshop but it sounds amazing!

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