I am auntie to two lively nephews, age 7 and 9. The older one is a budding engineer and philosopher; the younger is insanely quotable and madcap creative, in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of way.

And when they try to tell stories – that’s when things become FUN.

Yesterday was one of those moments, and it reminded me of why we as writers need to stop and do some (discreet, non-creepy/stalkerish) eavesdropping now and then, for the sake of beefing up our dialogue skills. Here’s the short version of what went down during Nephew Storytelling Time:

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9yo: Once upon a time there were three people…no four…and their names were….wait, who’s here? [does a head count]

[7yo and 9yo argue about people and names for 5 minutes]

9yo: ANYWAY. So. There was this teacher who lived in the neighborhood but not in a house…

7yo: She lived outside?

9yo: No, she lived in the neighborhood.

7yo: But you she said she didn’t live in a house.

9yo: Can I please finish the story? So she lived across the…

7yo: …planet.

9yo: NO. STREET. [deep breath] So. She loved to hate to teach, so one day she took some….

7yo: …leftover chicken broth.

9yo: NO. ITS MY STORY. She took a land mine the size of Italy….

7yo: …and so the world blew up. The end.

9yo: WILL YOU PLEASE LET ME FINISH THE STORY?

7yo: Sometime this year. That would be nice.

9yo: SO THERE WAS THIS LAND MINE FOREST AND A CORN MAZE AND NO ONE COULD ESCAPE… [deep breath, realizes we’re all listening for a change] …so we all ate our way out. And then we blew up and then started running…

7yo: Did we sit on you?

9yo: No.

7yo: Were you wearing your glasses? Did we break them?

9yo: No.

7yo: Then we all went on a picnic. Wait. What were you drinking while you were setting all the traps?

9yo: Your blood. Now be quiet.

7yo: Are you finished yet? Because I’m growing a beard, here.

9yo: I’M TRYING.

7yo: Then come on, Brain-Eater. I’m waiting!

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Listening to – and trying to transcribe – the nephew storytelling exchange was a great way to practice some dialogue dication; but it also reminded me of something I’ve seen agents/editors talk about a good deal: namely, the importance of capturing an age-appropriate “voice.”

So many times we (myself included) try to make children in our books sound like wise adults stuffed into little bodies, when in reality their conversations run more or less like what I’ve transcribed here. Every once in a while they do spout off something remarkably profound – sometimes organically, at other times in repetition of what they’ve heard an adult say – but it’s not usually the bulk of their conversation.

I once read the recommendation to remove all concrete “markers” of age in a story (dialogue tags, references to age, playgrounds, school, etc) and read what’s left aloud. If the child has been rendered well, his/her “voice” should still leave a reader with a sense of the age, even without any of the trappings. Taking “street notes” on dialogue is a good way to practice that.

What about you? How do you handle dialogue issues in your manuscript, especially as applies to children? Let me know in the comments!

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