Rx for Writers

Writing Tips - Story Dialogue

Jan Fields, ICL web editor, has published in many and varied children’s and family magazines including Boys’ Quest, Highlights For Children, Shining Star, Crayola Kids, Ladybug, Single-Parent Family and Charisma-Life.  Though she began her career writing for adults exclusively, she was soon lured into the challenging world of children's writing. Jan has taught adult and children’s writing for over twenty years. In addition to this busy schedule, Jan is the editor of Kid Magazine Writer e-magazine. She is a member of the SCBWI and a repeat speaker at local SCBWI conferences. Her articles about writing have been published both in print and online markets such as Keystrokes, Byline, Children’s Writer, and Children’s Book Insider. She also wrote a middle grade fantasy novel for the Creative Girls Club line by DRG Publishing. In her spare time, she sleeps.


by Jan Fields

Most of us know what dialogue means - it is the words spoken by a character in a story. And because we love to listen to people speak, some new writers will write full stories that are only dialogue with accompanying speech tags to identify each speaker. This kind of "disembodied voices" story does not sell because it doesn't feel real to the reader. In short stretches, disembodied voices can be used for effect - for example, when the voices really are disembodied. But in all other situations, readers need more than dialogue to root them to the story - they need detail.

The narrative is the parts of the story that contain the action and setting detail. In a first person novel, the narration is spoken by the main character and must maintain the voice of the main character. It's this element that makes first person challenging for many writers. With first person, you voice must never slip out of the speech patterns, word choices, and attitude of your main character.

In a third person novel, the narrator will usually reflect a distinctly similar style of the main character, even though it is not the main character himself. But the voice doesn't need to be an exact match. You do want to avoid using an adult voice at this point though - so think of your narration as sounding like a peer of the main character. About the same age but not with the same emotional investment. This allows the narration to pay more attention to details of action and setting that the first person narrator might not bother to share.


Dialogue is the actual spoken conversations of the character - the bits found in the quotation marks. Like Alice in Wonderland, many young people will scan the page looking for "conversations" because dialogue shows the story will be about people. The young reader is much more interested in the people and what they do and say than he is in long exposition or lengthy lyrical passages about the weather or color of the clouds. Dialogue is often where we meet the personality of the characters and find the humor of the story.

Although dialogue gives voice to the characters, that cannot be all it does. Dialogue is unbreakably tied to the plot and must be essential to the plot. If two characters ramble on about pansies, pansies must be essential to the plot of the story. It isn't enough that the discussion shows the characters are quiet homebodies, it must also move something forward. Everything in your story must help that forward motion that is the plot. Because of this, the best dialogue is set inside the action of the story. And because of this, editors often look askance at the long passages of lecture-ish dialogue between your main character and a wise adult - these passages often interrupt plot action, bringing the story to a painful halt.


Dialogue should not be used to replace action. Many newer writers have all action take place "off stage" and we only know about it because a character thinks about it or talks about it. Imagine if a movie did that. Nothing every happening on the screen but two people sitting in chairs and talking at one another - how quickly would we turn away from that? But many writers do try this because they are more comfortable have a character tell about an action than they are having the characters do the action right there in front of us. If your story could be written as a radio play simply by moving the speech tag to the left side - you definitely have a problem. Give the reader things to see - not just voices to hear.

Dialogue is also not a way to dump the details on the reader. Dialogue can sneak in details, but never ever dump. For example, this would be bad dialogue:

"What's the matter?" Beth asked. "I haven't seen you this droopy since Dad up and left in the middle of the night last year and we all had to try to figure out how to survive on Mom's bitty income waiting tables at the Awful Waffle."

"Yeah," Bobby said, thoughtfully as he remembered those terrible days of questioning whether he was the reason Dad left. Dad never liked Bobby's interest in books and drawing instead of sports and hunting. "But this is even worse. There's a bully at school who is picking on me. You know how much shorter I am than all the other guys and how I can't seem to put on weight no matter how much I eat. Mom says I'm scrawny as a plucked chicken. How can I deal with a bully who is twice my size?"

That kind of dialogue is marked by characters telling each other things they already know for the sake of the reader. Kids aren't fooled by that. They know it's fake and thus it pushes them away from the characters instead of making the story more emotionally real. That doesn't mean you can't sneak in hints about the past:

Beth walked over and plunked down beside Bobby. "So, what's the matter this time?"

Bobby glared at her. Sure, he hadn't been Mister Jolly the past year without Dad but Beth acted like all he did was mope like a little kid. "Nothing."

"Right," she said. "This wouldn't have anything to do with that bruise on your cheek would it?"

Bobby's hand flew to his face. "It shows? Mom's going to freak."

"When Mom gets home, she's too tired to see, much less freak."

Maybe, but Bobby didn't like to take the chance.

Notice how it covers much of the same ground but does it a bit more subtly and puts things to see in front of the reader as well. That helps distract from a little "informing" and makes it more natural and palatable. So, whenever you need to get the reader up to speed - be sneaky.


Narrative is not a place to pull out your poetic license and begin writing wrecklessly. You do want to show. You do want to set a scene. You do want to include sensory details. But you do not want to drag down the pace of the story. You do not want to turn the story into vocabulary lessons. You do not want to remind the reader that the person writing it is an adult with an adult's viewpoints and prejudices. You do not want to confuse the reader or distract the reader from the content of the story.

Many classic stories included piles and piles of description. One book I was assigned in Junior High spent the first four pages describing the sky and the moors. It took me a full week to get past those pages to where the story began because that much description was so painfully dull to a twelve year old. It wasn't that I was lazy, or stupid, or a poor reader. I was in a hurry because I was twelve and there are always more interesting things to do than ponder clouds for four pages - always.

Writing to modern styles of narrative doesn't mean we don't show. It means we don't become self-indulgent. We're adults and we may be proud of the ability to wax poetic about clouds for a thousand words but writing isn't about us. Writing is about them - the reader. And because it's about the reader, our goal is to give enough detail for the reader to build imagination. Not so many that they drag. Consider these bits of narrative detail:

For younger readers: Marcus wished for snow all day. Outside the sun shone stubbornly. Flowers bloomed in the yard. Bees flitted and buzzed. Marcus flopped on his pillow. Feathers puffed out a tiny hole. They were white. They were floaty. Marcus tossed the pillow in the air. Feathers fell in his hair and on his bed. Is this what snow is like?

For intermediate readers: Silk butterflies of every hue clung to the imitation lavender straw of the hat, or to the silk dogwoods tucked in the mint green hatband. As Jackson gazed upon this wonder, he was reminded of the last time he had seen so many butterflies in one place. They had been clustered on a steamy fresh cow pie in his uncle's pasture, indulging in a sip and bit of sun.

For teens: Hope peered through the grime-crusted windows at the passing landscape. The brush was thick but burnt brown and brittle by the relentless drought. Rain fell into every conversation she'd heard for the past month. Rain to quench the endless thirst. Rain to cool a land turned hellish. Rain to wash away the gore.

Notice that each descriptive section is about the same length but the one for younger readers has shorter sentences that mix action with detail. The intermediate section uses humor to keep reader interest. And the third counts on the slightly longer attention span of teens. But all use strong specific verbs in the passages to keep a feeling of movement and vitality.

The most successful stories balance both narrative (keeping it full of action and specific detail) and dialogue with each doing the job necessary to serve the plot. If you're going to watch the weather - the weather needs to play a vital part in the story plot. If you're going to look at butterflies on a silk hat for a whole paragraph, they better be important to the story plot. And if you're going to stare out the window at the drought-stricken landscape, what we see needs to be important to plot. Cool description only works when it works for the story. So, what balance works for your story today?

To avoid missing a single article, transcript, or important news announcement, sign up for the Institute’s free weekly e-mail updates. Simply go to this link, type your e-mail address, press SUBMIT, and you’ll be subscribed! http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/email_updates.shtml.


Return to Story Dialogue

93 Long Ridge Road, West Redding, CT 06896

Home | Writing Course | Short Story  | Full Story | Aptitude Test 
Send Me Info | EnrollOur Instructors | Our Credentials | Sample Lesson
College Credits |
Tax Deductibility | Writer's Bookstore | Contact Us 
Newsletter | Writing Contests | Write for Adults | Free Writer's News
Rx for Writers | Writing Tips  | Transcripts  | Writer's Retreat
Writer's Support  | Student  Center |  Privacy Policy | Web Editor

Copyright © Institute for Writers LLC, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015
No part of the electronic transmission to which this notice is appended may be reproduced or redistributed in any form or manner without the express written permission of Institute for Writers LLC