The Dialogue Test

Here is the dialogue test: Give a reader a sentence taken from the dialogue in your book manuscript. Ask him or her to identify which character said which sentence. It should be obvious. Characters speak in dialogue that has a definitive and unique flavor. A reader should be able to take a piece of dialogue from a novel and know from its cadence and rhythm which character is speaking. It’s important to know our characters so well that they never speak in anything but their own voices.

Young readers like dialogue. It’s active, engaging and easier to read than continuous pages of prose. Young adults and new adults like this as well. Generally, readers would rather read:

Susan yelled at Mike as she ran toward the tracks. “Stop!”

than

Susan yelled at Mike to stop.

This is consistent with “Show, don’t tell.” As much as possible, we don’t jump into the manuscript and tell the reader what is going on.

We let the dialogue give much of the plot.

The way the words appear on the page, the visual pattern, entice the reader to continue reading. Readers, especially young readers, need white space, the empty areas on the page, as a rest for their eyes and a visual sign that the book is not too difficult for them and not too much “work” to read. Pages of prose trigger memories of text books which creates resistance in readers. If readers know dialogue will appear soon, they are more willing to read the prose. If they think they must read many pages of unrelieved prose, they might put the book down and find one that was more interesting.

Avid readers, readers with great skills and ambition to read difficult words, also like dialogue. This isn’t only because they find dialogue reading easier, it is often because they find their relationship with the characters more intimate in dialogue– and readers do want to feel a connection to the characters. Our characters are interacting with the reader, and they can do this easily in dialogue.

Notice the difference dialogue makes to this scene where two twelve-year-old girls are trying to decide whether to go swimming or stay home and spy on their sister.

Weak:

They argued about their choices, but finally decided to stay home.

Stronger:

“It’s hot. I’m sweating, Just smell me.” Reena thrust her arm pit toward Tania.

“Eww. Come on. We can swim any time. If we don’t stay home and spy on Amelia, we will never know what she’s been doing.”

“You are always trying to tell me what to do. I’m tired of it”

“Come on, Reena. “This is our chance to find out if she really is going to elope with that clunk-head.”

 

Past injustices can be hinted at, simmering conflicts exposed, different personalities defined in dialogue as well as plot lines accelerated. And, above all, the reader feels intimately involved with the characters.

Many writers feel that it is essential to use slang vocabulary in children’s stories. It can be highly inventive and dramatic. The problem with slang is that it can make a book seem very old-fashioned. Consider how a modern reader would react to reading “groovy” and “gosh” throughout the dialogue. Today’s slang grows old quickly. If you use present-day slang, you run the risk of dating your book.

But children do use slang, particularly when they talk to each other. They usually have a different vocabulary for adults, but they definitely have an “in” language for their peers. Very often that slang includes swear words which are not acceptable to adult buyers. Some authors try to use emphatic words that convey emotion without using curse words or obscenities; “freaking” is a substitute. Some buyers who accept murder, robbery, assault and kidnapping in books, will not accept “shit,” which, while vulgar, is not swearing. We are an odd society.

In whatever way they speak, our characters must display their unique personalities and give readers a change to engage with them. Dialogue definitely adds interest, excitement and often a sense of fun to our manuscripts.