YA KNOWHOW Talking dialogue

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In the next part of her series about writing YA, Tracy Darnton gives us her top tips for writing authentic teenage dialogue.


“Wassup? Today I is talking ‘bout, er, dialogue in YA,” I explain groovily. Did you cringe?

Good dialogue adds pace, furthers the plot and provides characterisation. Bad dialogue makes us all too aware of the author behind the writing. So what should we be thinking about when writing dialogue in YA?

First, beware of slang which dates quickly. But don’t go too far the other way and place an old head on young shoulders.

Are you reflecting your own speech, rather than your character’s? Remember dialogue is not a transcript. If it was, it’d be extremely dry, full of ums and ers and constantly going off at a tangent. You’re aiming for an authentic feel not word for word actual conversations. 

The level and frequency of swear words always needs thinking about and can dramatically affect tone and impact in the book. If you’re not sure, review on editing when you can see the whole effect.

Good dialogue reveals character, not backstory.
Credit: Maxpixel

However tempting, don’t ram in all that backstory: “Hello Matt. I hear you were kicked out by your hated step-dad Steve for splitting up your identical twin Felix and your secret crush Millie.” Instead, the words you omit, the sentence which trails away, silences and pauses are much more interesting in YA as they give a subtext to work out.

Monologues are unusual in the real world. If a character in a conversation says three sentences, that’s possibly the time to switch to another speaker. And rather than ‘explain groovily’, try the advice to use mainly ‘said’ so that the eye skips over the speech tags.

It’s much stronger to let the dialogue do the work for a YA reader so use adverbs sparingly too.

My final tip is to read your dialogue out loud. Better still, get someone else to. You’ll pick up the clunky and definitely the cringe-worthy.


Tracy Darnton’s YA thriller The Truth About Lies was published by Stripes in July 2018. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Helen Liston is KnowHow editor, if you have any ideas about what you'd like to read about here, send them to knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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