Writing Dialogue In Teen Novels, by Laurie Faria Stolarz
I love writing dialogue and spend a great deal of time trying to get it right to make my characters sound like real teens. I watch TV shows targeted to teens, eavesdrop on their conversations, read teen books and magazines, listen to the audio version of teen books, etc. – all in an effort to perfect the art of teen-speak. While teen-speech (or any speech, for that matter) can be sloppy – people leave out words, compress phases into single words, use contractions and habitual phrases, make mistakes, etc., etc. – dialogue is highly planned. Every line must have purpose and reason. Just like a film gives the illusion of motion, dialogue gives the illusion of conversation, but it isn’t real. It appears spontaneous, but it’s planned. It appears chaotic and unexpected, but it’s reasoned and highly controlled. Characters must have a reason for talking. We may have to put up with real people who talk about nothing, but we don’t have to put up with characters who do the same. I used to teach an online workshop with fellow author Lara Zeises. Here are some of the dialogue rules that we created.
Dialogue should fulfill the following roles in the manuscript:
1) advance the plot
2) reveal character
3) reveal motivation
4) substitute narrative and
5) establish tone or mood.
If the dialogue doesn’t fill one of these criteria, then it probably can be removed without adversely affecting the story.
Some common mistakes
1. Overusing synonyms for the word “said” (cried, howled, bellowed, whispered, stated, replied, voiced, expressed, vented, responded, uttered, shouted, vocalized, asserted, declared…) – most readers don’t register the word “said”, so when you do use a special tag like “whispered” it really stands out.
2. Being too true to the way people speak (adding “um”, “like”, etc.) – unless adding an occasion or two of “like” really fits the character’s voice in a particular situation.
3. Using too much dialect.
4. Sounding too stilted or formal.
5. Using people’s names too often in conversations.
6. Losing track of who said what (that’s what speech tags are for!).
7. Unclear pronoun references (If there are three men in a room and you say “he,” which “he” are you referring to?).
8. Conversations where characters tell each other what they already know.
9. Having a character talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss.
10. Long, boring speeches to provide information to the reader. Show versus tell applies to dialogue as well as narrative. Having a character tell something is still telling.
11. Busywork (when a character answers the phone, don’t have them say, “Hello”, “How are you?” etc – jump into the meat of the conversation.
12. Making all characters sound alike (or worse, making all of the characters sound just like YOU).
Laurie Faria Stolarz’s author website: www.lauriestolarz.com
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Writing Teen Novels