I’m excited to be participating in a Blog Party, hosted by MG author Lisa Lewis Tyre. I’ve never really done anything like this before, so I’m a bit nervous…but totally excited!
Below is a blog post I originally wrote for my publisher HarperVoyager on writing dialogue in YA. I hope you enjoy, and please be sure to check out Lisa’s blog after you’ve finished!
Crafting Believable Dialogue in YA Fiction by Christ J. Whitney
We know it when we read it. Good dialogue.
But what makes that dialogue believable? After all, dialogue is simply the act of two or more characters speaking to each other. It should be pretty cut-and-dry, right?
We certainly know when it doesn’t work well. And when it doesn’t, it can kill the story. I’ve had people ask me how to write believable young adult dialogue. I wish I could say I knew the answer, because it’s a great question. I once heard someone at a conference say that the best way to write YA is to listen to teens speak. I believe that’s helpful advice, up to a point. I spent years as a high school teacher, surrounded by teenagers for hours on end. Though my experience helped shaped my writing style, merely copying the dialogue you hear around you doesn’t make your writing believable. So what does? Well, it begins with understanding this simple concept:
Fictional dialogue and real dialogue aren’t the same.
There’s a big difference between real-life dialogue and dialogue in a story. Real dialogue can be found while eavesdropping on conversations at the coffee shop, but it wouldn’t make for good writing. Why? Because, let’s face it, long scenes of real people talking can become boring. We don’t want to read drawn-out scenes of characters discussing the weather or going through a litany of their daily routines. In fiction, dialogue is used to make big statements, express ideas, and propel the characters forward in their journeys.
In YA, it’s not a matter of trying to copy exactly what teens say or how they speak. For me, it’s more a matter of writing the way teens want to speak or feel they speak, as opposed to how they actually do. But that’s no different from how adults approach dialogue, either. There is the reality of how we talk versus how we actually desire to talk.
Believable dialogue serves a purpose.
I come from a theatre background and am very used to working with scripts. It’s the dialogue in a script that shows the story, not the narrative. I’ve found that effective dialogue serves to:
- Move the story forward.
- Expose characters and their relationships to each other.
- Increase the pace and tension of the story.
Dialogue needs to be relatable, simple, and easy to read. When it’s working, the story flows well, and the characters’ words have an impact. Just as a stage play is a mirror of the real world, fictional dialogue is a reflection of real dialogue. It’s similar in style, and it invokes the same emotions, but it isn’t bogged down or littered with useless words and filler.
Cassandra Clare, author of the New York Times Bestseller YA series The Mortal Instruments, is fantastic at creating effective dialogue that allows for character development and building tension.
In this short, but fueled scene between Clary and Jace in City of Bones, the author ramps up the tension between the characters while giving insight into their developing relationship.
Jace’s smile was as bland as buttered toast. “Go on, go after him. Pat his head and tell him he’s still your super special little guy. Isn’t that what you want to do?”
“Stop it,” she said. “Stop being like that.”
His smile widened. “Like what?”
“If you’re angry, just say it. Don’t act like nothing ever touches you. It’s like you never feel anything at all.”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you kissed me,” he said.
She looked at him incredulously. “I kissed you?”
He looked at her with glittering malice. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it wasn’t that memorable for me, either.”
In my debut novel Grey, I used Sebastian’s interaction with his best friend Katie to show his personality and explore a bit of how he relates to the people around him. An example of this is found in a short scene between the two friends early in the book.
‘Bet he’s going to rag Brandon and Emma,’ she said as Avery sprinted away. She gave me one of her knowing looks and smiled. ‘You know they’re like an official couple, as of yesterday.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said politely.
Her smile turned sly. ‘So, now it’s your turn.’
‘Oh no,’ I said, using my lunch tray as a barricade. ‘I’m immune to your schemes. No more trying to set me up. You do remember the Becky Drummond fiasco, don’t you?’
‘What?’ Katie shrugged. ‘She was perfect for you.’
‘She said I smelled like moss. Who says that on a first date?’
‘Okay, maybe not perfect.’
‘I know you feel it’s your God-given duty to bring me up to acceptable social standards,’ I said, trying my best to look solemn, ‘but I assure you, I’m a pathetically lost cause. Use your oozy matchmaker charms on some other poor soul.’
‘Oh, come on, Sebastian.’ Katie nudged my shoulder. ‘You’re funny, you’re sweet . . . ’
‘And you sound like a commercial for a dating agency.’
Katie sighed. ‘Well, points for trying, I guess.’
‘Yeah,’ I grinned. ‘Always points for trying.’
So, what creates believable dialogue in YA fiction? While there are many opinions – just attend a few writing conferences or read a few blogs – for me, as an author, I feel it starts with this simple tip: Fictional dialogue is a reflection of reality, rather than a copy of it. Use your words to express the heart of your characters, and the reader will believe it.
Thanks for reading, and check out Lisa’s blog post!