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  • Writer's pictureDavid Salariya

20 Tips for Writing Dialogue in Children’s Books


Shakespearean characters rising from books. Artwork by Shirley Salariya. Characters from Shakespearean plays rising out of a row of books. Illustration by Shirley Willis.
Shakespearean characters rising from books.

Every Book Matters...

Every book matters, every word counts, every character is significant, and every plot twist is a heartbeat. But how do you keep the pulse of your story strong and steady? Writing dialogue for children's books presents a unique set of challenges, but also opportunities!


Dialogue in children's books must always be engaging, age-appropriate, and easy to follow, while also advancing the story and developing characters.


Here are twenty tips for authors, to help you craft dialogue that resonates with young readers.


Let's get the mini takeaway first before we get head into the real details.


For children's book dialogue, use simple, age-appropriate language, keep sentences short, and avoid complex words. Ensure dialogue sounds natural, distinguishes characters, and moves the plot forward. Use dialogue tags sparingly, where appropriate, incorporate humour, and reflect children's perspectives authentically.


Ok so let's begin by looking at one of the most important considerations and how you can  get on the wavelength of your mini-readers.


Writing Dialogue in Children’s Books: Understand Your Audience

Understanding your audience when writing dialogue in children’s books is one of the many elements to think about when writing a novel or picture book for children.


By knowing what children like and what they understand, you can create stories that speak to them, making reading a fun and magical experience.


So let's head straight into some of the tips to keep your audience fully engaged!


1. Language

The language and complexity of dialogue should be appropriate for the age group you are targeting. Use simple sentences and familiar words for early readers (ages 5-7).


For middle-grade readers (ages 8-12), you can introduce more complex ideas and a wider vocabulary, but clarity should always remain a priority.


2. Authenticity

Children quickly pick-up on inauthentic dialogue in children's books. Listen to how children speak in real life. Listening can significantly improve dialogue writing. Listen to conversations, notice body language, verbal mannerisms, tics, word choices, syntax, speech patterns, and turns of phrase. Make notes and look for contrasting word choices.


Visit schools or simply listen and analyse conversations on podcasts, the radio or television or youtube videos where children may have been recorded. Children’s speech tends to be direct and honest, often with a touch of humour or imagination.


3. Use Realistic Speech Patterns

Avoid overly formal or adult-like language. Children often use contractions (like “I’m” instead of “I am”) and colloquial expressions.


They might also repeat words or phrases for emphasis. Ensure your dialogue captures these nuances.


4. Show, Don’t Tell

Dialogue reveals character traits and emotions without needing additional explanation.


“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby Character Meyer Wolfsheim



Instead of saying “Emma was angry,” let Emma's words show her anger: “That’s not fair! I don’t want to do it!”


Scene: Victor Frankenstein sees the creature he has created... with appologies to Mary Shelly.


Tell

Victor was fearful when he saw his creation. The creature looked frightening and angry. It was a terrible moment for Victor.


Show

Victor's heart pounded in his chest as the creature emerged from the shadows, its huge, grotesque form lit by flickering candlelight. The creature's eyes burned with a fiery intensity as a growl escaped its twisted lips. Victor stumbled backward, holding his breath, as cold sweat trickled down his spine.


Frankenstein's creature - illustration by David Salariya
"The creature's eyes burned with a fiery intensity as a growl escaped its twisted lips."

Breakdown

Tell "Victor was fearful"—This tells the reader about Victor's fear without showing it. "The creature looked frightening and angry." This tells the reader how the creature looks and feels without description. "It was a terrible moment for Victor." This is a broad statement that doesn't convey the emotion effectively.


Show "Victor's heart pounded in his chest"—This shows Victor's fear through a physical reaction. "The creature emerged from the shadows, its huge grotesque form lit by flickering candlelight." This paints a vivid picture of the creature's appearance and the scene. "The creature's eyes burned with a fiery intensity as a growl escaped its twisted lips." This provides specific details that convey the creature's anger. "Victor stumbled backward, holding his breath, as cold sweat trickled down his spine." This continues to show Victor's fear through his actions and physical sensations.


Using the "Show, Don't Tell" technique, immerses the reader in the scene, making the emotions and tension palpable.



5. Break It Up

Children’s attention spans are shorter, so keep dialogue exchanges brief and to the point.

Avoid long-winded speeches (Like the one below). If a character needs to explain something, break it into smaller dialogue interspersed with action or descriptions.


Queen Elizabeth I explaining in a speech bubble the background to a book about Sir Francis Drake. You Wouldn't Want To Explore The World With Sir Francis Drake

This solution (above) is probably not to be recommended for writing a long winded speech, I was writing this book You Wouldn't want To Explore The World With Sir Francis Drake as David Stewart, one of the names I'd written books under a 'pen-name'. The background to the Elizabethan period in English history is extremely complex and with only 32 pages and with minimum space for text - I didn't want to use the introduction page for this material as that needed to be from the point of view of Francis Fletcher, Fletcher's log of Drake's voyage formed the basis of The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, an account of the voyage published in London in 1628. So an enormous speech bubble was the answer with Queen Elizabeth herself giving the reader the background and the editor contradicting her.


6. Reflecting Regional Dialects?

If your story is set in a specific part of the country, you could consider incorporating regional dialects and slang, however be extremely wary of using too much and using a very contemporary slang could quickly date your book - or if you want your character's dialogue to be from a specific time period e.g., 1960's 'groovy' 'fab'. PJ Wodehouse's slang from the 1920's would be incomprehensible to a young reader without a glossary definition, "I must rush. I'm putting on the nosebag with a popsy". Bachelors Anonymous, (nosebag - meaning "to eat" from the canvas bag used to feed horses, and 'popsy' meaning "girl" translates as "I must go - I'm meeting a girl for lunch".


Be careful and take advice if you are trying to write in the speech patterns and dialogue for a character whose rythm of speech and use of slang you may know little about - this is never a good idea, so research thoroughly, Irvin Welsh can write "Aw, ah sais" (All - I said) but could you?


Writing slang dialogue in children's books could add authenticity and help children from different regions relate to the characters, however, use dialect sparingly to ensure it remains understandable to a wider audience and keep an eye to how this might translate.


7. Use British English

Ensure your language reflects British English when writing dialogue rather than American English when British English is the language you are writing in or visa-versa. Don't try some kind of hybrid mix of the two. An Americanisation by an editor who can Americanise, can be done at a later date when your book is being published in different editions.


Words like “mum” (not “mom”), “football” (not “soccer”), and “holiday” (not “vacation”) should be used appropriately.


This not only grounds your story in its setting but also avoids confusing your young readers.


8. Convey Emotions Through Dialogue

Children’s books often explore themes of friendship, adventure, and personal growth. Use dialogue to convey emotions authentically.

For instance, a character who is nervous might speak in short, hesitant sentences, while a confident character might use more assertive language.


9. Use Humour

Children love to laugh. Inject humour into your dialogue to keep it light-hearted and engaging.

Puns, wordplay, and silly misunderstandings can be very effective. Remember, what seems funny to adults might not resonate with children, so test your humour on real kids if possible.


Mummification scene with 'hieroglyphs' being spoken in a speech bubble as an example of using dialogue with humour
Speech bubbles can be used as 'dialogue' or visual jokes -- here I have a priest reciting in 'hieroglyphs'. You Wouldn't Want To Be An Ancient Egyptian Mummy! as a visual joke.

10. Drive the Plot Forward

Every piece of dialogue should serve a purpose.


The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Oscar Wilde


Whether revealing character traits, setting up a plot twist, or providing important information, ensure that your dialogue keeps the story moving.

Avoid filler conversations that do not contribute to the narrative.


11. Integrate Action with Dialogue

Combine dialogue with actions to create a dynamic reading experience.


For example, instead of writing “James said he was going to the park,” show James grabbing his coat and saying, “I’m off to the park. See you later!”


12. Read Aloud

Reading your dialogue out loud is a powerful tool. It helps you catch awkward phrasing and unnatural speech patterns. If you stumble over a sentence, chances are, your young readers will too.


13. Use Dialogue Tags Sparingly

While dialogue tags (said, asked, replied) are necessary for clarity, overusing them can clutter your writing.


Instead of “he said angrily,” show the anger through words and actions: “I can’t believe you did that!” He slammed his book shut.


14. Balance Dialogue with Narrative

Too much dialogue can overwhelm the reader, while too little can make your story feel static.

Strive for balance, weaving dialogue seamlessly with narrative and description to create a rich and engaging story.


15. Study Children's Books

Analyse the dialogue in popular children’s books. Notice how authors use dialogue to reveal characters and advance the plot.

Books by authors like Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, and Jacqueline Wilson offer excellent examples.


16. Write Dialogue-Only Scenes

As a writing exercise, try creating a scene using only dialogue.

This forces you to convey all necessary information and emotion through your characters’ speech.


Once you’re satisfied, add narrative elements to enhance the scene.


17. Peer Feedback

Share your work with other writers or join a writing group.


Feedback from peers can provide valuable insights into how your dialogue reads and how it might be improved.


18. Get Feedback from Children

Children are your ultimate audience. If possible, read your dialogue to children in your target age group. Their reactions and comments can offer invaluable guidance.


19. Create Distinctive Voices for Characters

Ensure each character has a unique way of speaking that reflects their personality, background, and age.


This helps young readers differentiate between characters easily.


For example, a shy character might speak softly and use fewer words, while a bold character might use louder, more assertive language.


20. Incorporate Everyday Language and Expressions

Use phrases and expressions that children hear in their daily lives to make dialogue more relatable.


Incorporating familiar sayings, idioms, or even the latest slang (appropriately, with great care and sparingly) can make your characters’ speech feel more authentic and engaging to young readers.


What are Some Tips for Writing Dialogue in Children's Books? - To End On…

Children aged between seven and eight years old are moving from early childhood to middle childhood and will usually be reading independently. They will have curiosity and empathy. They will enjoy stories that spark their imagination; stories with strong character development and emotional journeys can really resonate. 


Choose relevant themes and topics: adventure, friendship, fantasy, and problem-solving, and create relatable and inspiring characters. Keep your plots engaging with clear plotlines, short chapters, and conflict resolution. Use language appropriate to children's reading level, humour, and natural dialogue. Use illustrations and visuals to make breaks in the text. Involve your target audience in the writing process if you can, including BETA readers and if possible classroom visits.


You can incorporate educational and moral lessons; however, be wary, as this can be difficult to pull off without coming across as preaching and dull. Market research and market trends are essential to understanding current trends.


Write with authenticity and passion, as children can sense genuine and cared-for stories. Writing for children can be a rewarding and you are involved in shaping young minds and building future readers.



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