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Writing for Children/pt1. - The Do I? Don't I? of Dialogue Tags

In editing and writing, my specialism is children's fiction. I write it, read and teach it ... and now I blog it too! Join me for regular posts covering all aspects of writing for younger readers

Who said that?

Writing sometimes becomes a family affair for me, as my kids are often involved as young reader judges for the WriteMentor Children’s Novel Award. Their number one reason for disengaging with a text is:

'I couldn’t tell who was talking'

This is a huge problem for a young reader. A child tugged away from the action, to figure out which character is speaking, isn’t immersed in the world. And without immersion ... well, Netflix is just a click or two away!

Who's talking?

Those ‘I said’, ‘she asked’, ‘they suggested’ (dialogue tags) might not flow so well for an adult reader, but in children's fiction dialogue is a highway, straight from the characters’ brain to your readers’; you need to keep the lanes clear!

Here’s an example from Louie Stowell’s The Dragon in the Library:

“... ten a.m. tomorrow?” asked Faith.

“Can we come?” asked Josh.

“Of course. It’s a public library!” said Faith.

... “What does ‘figuratively’ mean?” asked Kit.

“It’s the opposite of literally,” explained Josh.

“And ‘literally’ is?” asked Kit, ...

Personally, as a reader, I skip over all the dialogue tags. I see Faith, Kit, and Josh and that tells me all I need to know. That's my adult brain skipping over text, seeing only what is necessary to make sense of the scene. A child isn't so adept at this and will read it all, and NEED it all.

Feel the (action) beat

Similarly, action beats can play an important role if you want to expand on, or change up the narrative and avoid a dialogue tag. My advice when using action beats is the same whether you're writing for emerging readers or seasoned, adult readers - make them relevant and purposeful. Try to avoid having your characters looking at things, shrugging, or rolling their eyes simply to add an action beat.

Here are some examples of action beats in use, from Storm, by Nicola Skinner. They can be more versatile than dialogue tags, coming before, or after, the speech.

I tried not to look insulted. 'How would you say it the old-fashioned way?'

'...We talked to each other for ages - she played games with me.' He nearly smiled.

Something else to bear in mind, when writing for young readers, is that they are less practiced in reading and understanding emotion and body language. It's perfectly acceptable to tell the reader that your protagonist feels vulnerable, or confused, or that your antagonist is ashamed or regretful. You can do this with your dialogue tags:

'No,' he said eventually, in a small voice.

'Out?' I said, confused.

'Yes, I can see that,' said Crawler, sounding excited.

As a rule of thumb, the younger your target reader, the more explicit you can, and should, be when writing dialogue, but even when writing YA, bear in mind your reader is still looking for engagement, not hard work.

She said.

Happy writing!


Join me next time for more writing for children tips, and if you'd like free feedback on your first page, click below and say hello

From EmDashED Freelance Novel Editing


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