The "long" awaited Story Element is here! Today we will discuss #4, DIALOGUE. I have been told that I am pretty good with dialogue. However, I am struggling quite a bit with how to share how to write about it. Kids like to talk, even when they are characters in a picture book (or novel). They need to sound authentic, but not necessarily accurate.
Accurate vs. Authentic
Accurate dialogue would be every single thing a child actually says verbatim. Authentic dialogue is bringing the essence of the language through the economy of words. In picture books, words have to be economical. For example:
Accurate: "Mom! But, but, but, I really wanted oatmeal for breakfast, not these yukky-looking eggs! You know, my friends always have cereal. Why can't we have cereal every day too? Huh?"Balance
Authentic: "Not eggs!" Ed whined to his mom. "Can't I have oatmeal or cereal instead?"
In every story, there has to be a balance of dialogue and telling. In picture books, the dialogue is usually less than half the story. Yes, some books have much more dialogue than others, and a few books have hardly any at all, but almost all picture books have at least some. It's important that you know your character and your story so you can feel where the balance should lie. Not every page will have characters speaking. More than likely, they'll show a character doing something.
Title: Sixteen Cows
Author: Lisa Wheeler
Illustrator: Kurt Cyrus
Word Count: 545
First Page: (half spread) No dialogue.
Spread 1: Gene sings his come-home song and the cows all answer, "Moo."
Spread 2: none
Spread 3: Sue sings her come-home song and all her cows answer, "Moo."
Spread 4: none
Spread 5: none
Spread 6: Sue gets mad and tells her cows: "Don't mingle with those low-down cows," she cried. "That just won't do!"
Spread 7: Sue and Gene's come-home songs get all mixed up.
Cowboy Gene got hoppin' mad. "You're messin' up my song!"Spread 9: none
Cowgirl Sue was hoppin', too. "You made me sing it wrong!"
"I'm singin' all my cows back home!"
"I'm singin' mine home, too!"
Spread 10: none
Spread 11: none
Spread 12: Cowboy Gene yells, "Stop! If we keep us this singin' feud, our cows are sure to drop!" Sue agrees, "Sure enough!"
Gene mumbled, "What nice cows you have."Spread 14: none
Sue blushed. "I like yours, too. Together they're one happy herd."
Last page: (half spread) The cows say, "MOO!"
With two half pages, we can kind of say there are 15 spreads for the sake of math and trying to create accurate percentages. So, 8 of the 15 spreads have dialogue. It's a little more than half, but if you go by word count, it's much less than half. (No, I didn't actually count.) Balance is important, but it will usually play out naturally. It's more important to focus on what's being said. With this model picture book, the dialogue really helps move the plot forward. We get a deeper glimpse into the two characters. Fun dialogue also makes for a great read aloud experience.
Take one of your mss and look at how much dialogue you have used. See if it is balanced. If it's a bit heavy on the dialogue, try to condense it and tell just a little. Or reword some of the dialogue sections to be more authentic instead of accurate. If your ms is too light on the dialogue, try turning some of your telling or actions into dialogue. Future posts will go more in depth on how to do this, but it won't hurt to give it a try before then.
Story Element #1: Character
Story Element #2: Conflict
Story Element #3: Plot
Next week: Story Element #5: Theme
Keep on keepin' on...