Telling a story and writing a story, I have found, are very different skills. Some people describe me as a storyteller; it’s true I can spin a good yarn every now and then. I inherited it from my father, who as he always said could make a long story longer.
We all have stories to tell and stories worth telling. Some are true, some are fictional, and some are a little of both. But to make a story worth listening to or reading can be challenging. When you tell a story you always get another chance to modify and change, to add or subtract. You get instant feedback from the listeners. When I tell my boys the stories at night about the fictional characters I make up, the general story stays the same, but the details change partly because I want to try to improve it and partly because I forget how I told it last time.
When I started writing these stories down, I realized I was just writing was I was saying. This makes sense in one way, but it doesn’t always work when you read the story. My storytelling often doesn’t involve much dialogue. Dialogue was the main reason I couldn’t finish writing novels.
Good dialogue is difficult to write. What a character says and how they say it can communicate a lot about them. It reveals what they think and how they think, and, for some characters, it is the only way into their thoughts. Dialogue can make or break a story. Rigid dialogue creates poorly developed characters with whom it’s difficult for the reader to relate. Inconsistent dialogue makes characters wooden and unrealistic. You have to know your characters; their thoughts, their hopes, their personalities. If you don’t know your characters, neither will your readers.
Arnold Lobel, in my humble opinion, is one of the best children’s authors when it comes to dialogue. Frog and Toad, Owl at Home, Uncle Elephant, Mouse Soup, and Grasshopper on the Road are all masterpieces in character dialogue among children’s books. My sons love listening to the recordings we have of Lobel narrating his own works, and having us read his books to them. They repeat the words of the characters from these books – especially Frog and Toad – all the time. Reading Lobel and others like him helps me to understand how to write better dialogue.
Although in my first book there isn’t much dialogue, it was something I edited multiple times. It was never something with which I was completely happy, but I have tried experimenting with dialogue more in stories I tell my sons and in some of the newer manuscripts I have written. Hopefully the old adage, practice makes perfect, proves true.