In his recently published How to Write a Novel, middle-grade writer and former literary agent Nathan Bradford makes a key point about dialogue: Characters should speak more clearly and grammatically than real people.
Bradford writes: “In real life, our conversations wonder all over the place, and any conversation transcribed from real life will be a meandering mess full of free associations and stuttering. In a novel, good conversations are focused, and they are, for the most part, articulate.”
He’s right. If we had to read a character’s every “umm” and “you know” and “what’s that thing called again?” we’d lose interest fast.
It’s not as easy as taking out the umms, though. Especially if you’re developing middle-school characters, as I am. There is nothing more challenging than coming up with an authentic voice for each of my young characters. I want them to be well-spoken, but not too well-spoken. They can’t sound like mini-adults; they can’t sound like older teens, either. They have to sound like young people who are in the midst of growing up, still vulnerable but questing for independence and a sense of self. It’s a tough balance. Maybe this is why so many novels feature a verbally precocious kid who sounds like an adult. We adults love these kids–how could we not? They’re the ones who will actually talk to us, instead of grunting or ignoring us completely–and let’s face it they’re easy to create. Easier. Nothing about writing is easy.