Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Story Element #4: Dialogue

Hi, everyone! In case you missed my announcement the other day about my schedule change, Story Elements is now featured on Wednesdays. You can see the full new schedule in the right-hand column or the previous link. 

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?"
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.
Today's Model is Sixteen Cows by Lisa Wheeler
Title: Sixteen Cows
Author: Lisa Wheeler
Illustrator: Kurt Cyrus
Publisher: Harcourt
Year: 2002
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.
Spread 8: 
Cowboy Gene got hoppin' mad. "You're messin' up my song!"
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 9: none
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!"
Spread 13: 
Gene mumbled, "What nice cows you have."
Sue blushed. "I like yours, too. Together they're one happy herd."
Spread 14: none
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. 
Your Turn
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...


  1. Thanks for this post, Christie. I especially like the comparison of the accurate vs. authentic. I'll have to revisit all my drafts and see what I have. Looking forward to your future post on this topic.

  2. Oh dialogue. When it's right, it's so right. When it's not, it's such a slog to read! What people really say in real life vs what needs to be on the page really are separate things.

  3. Lulu Walks the Dogs written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Lane Smith - a great book about VOICE. (Will try to feature this one in the future...)

  4. Brilliant advice, Christie. Can't wait to check out the books you use for examples.

  5. Love "authentic" rather than accurate. I just found your site thanks to Rosi Hollinbeck's blog, The Write Stuff. I'm following your blog now.


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