Ever wished you could get writing advice from a pro? Well listen up, because it’s time for another Editor’s Pick. Alexandra Cooper, an Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, is breaking down how to take dialogue to the next level as demonstrated by Jessie Ann Foley in her latest book NEIGHBORHOOD GIRLS.
Nothing gets a story moving like some great dialogue. Below Alexandra explains how this can be an effective tool for not only moving plot forward – but for giving the reader a lot of useful background information (without having to explain every minute detail).
Check out her insights and advice below, and use the prompts she’s given to apply this skill to your own work!
How to Write Next Level Dialogue in YA Fiction
Hi again! I’m thrilled to be talking to you this month about NEIGHBORHOOD GIRLS by Jessie Ann Foley. If you’re a fan of My So-Called Life, this book is for you—there’s even a character named Tino. I loved this book from the first time I read it, and it’s perfect for September because it starts at the beginning of the school year, with its fresh school supplies and new schedules and untapped promise. The book deals with some serious subjects, like police brutality and having a parent in jail, but one of the central plotlines is about the main character’s toxic group of friends.
We see how far Wendy, the protagonist, is willing to compromise herself in order to stay close with these real-life mean girls, and Jessie Foley does an amazing job of developing their characters through dialogue.
Using dialogue can be a shorthand way to convey key information about your characters without relying on lots of exposition or physical description. It’s effective because readers tend to lose interest in paragraphs of background explanation. Instead, you can impart some of that same information through dialogue, which is shorter and snappier. You can also make use of gestures or mannerisms along with the dialogue, which helps paint a fuller picture of a character without bogging down readers in descriptive passages.
Early on in NEIGHBORHOOD GIRLS, we are introduced to Wendy’s core group of friends, led by queen bee Kenzie. Here’s a short exchange between Wendy and Kenzie, juniors in high school, at their lockers on a Friday afternoon in September:
“Don’t tell me you’re seriously gonna do homework this weekend,” Kenzie said as she watched me load my backpack with my physics textbook and my precalc notebook.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Um, because our school is closing? And therefore homework is pointless from now on?” She leaned over me, dabbing her lip gloss into place in the small magnet mirror on the inside of my locker door.
“Oh really? And what was your excuse before today?”
“I’m philosophically opposed to homework. You know that.” She smacked her lips together, satisfied, and began vigorously finger-combing her impossibly shiny waist-length hair. “Young girls like us should spend our free time freely. We have the rest of our lives to shrivel away in a library reading”—she picked up the novel I was reading by its spine, with her thumb and forefinger, like it was a rotting banana peel—“Pride and Prejudice.”
“You know,” I said, “you’d actually really like that book.”
“‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,’” she read. “Oh, I see. You think I’d like it just because it’s about a rich single guy? I have other interests, you know, Wendy.”
“Well, poor single guys, for one. And rich married guys. And emotionally unavailable middle-class guys—”
Entirely through conversation, with minimal description and zero expository paragraphs, we learn a lot about Wendy and Kenzie, and the differences between them. You could probably pinpoint three character traits each of them has, just from this brief excerpt.
Dialogue can also be used to reveal group dynamics without spelling them out. Here’s a scene with all four of the friends together—Wendy and Kenzie, plus Sapphire and Emily. Wendy has just gotten into Emily’s car, and the group is on its way to a football game:
“You look hot,” [Kenzie] said approvingly, arching a penciled eyebrow. “I have a feeling about tonight. A good one.”
“Your hair looks adorable,” Sapphire said with a pout, shoving over to make room for me. “Mine looks disgusting. I wish I had your hair.”
“No,” I said, reciting my lines. “My hair looks disgusting. Your hair is gorgeous.”
She began teasing the crown of her hair with her fingers, using the mirror on the back of her iPhone case to make adjustments. Sapphire’s beautiful, thick curls were her greatest vanity, so in the strange, inverted world of popularity, it meant that she had to spend as much time as possible ridiculing them.
“I love your top,” Emily shouted over the music as she eyed me from the rearview mirror.
“This?” I snapped the shoulder strap dismissively. “This stupid thing was like three bucks.” Which, of course, was a lie. The top was from the Young Contemporary section at Bloomingdale’s, a gift from my rich aunt Kathy, and it was my favorite piece of clothing.
From these lines—mainly dialogue with some description and just a bit of exposition interspersed—you can infer a lot about Wendy’s friends. For instance, they’re fake. For another, there’s a routine they go through when they are together. What else can you determine about their characters, based on the dialogue in this scene? Who speaks to Wendy first, for example? Who’s the last of the group to interact with Wendy after she gets into the car? Is what that character has to say original, or does it fall in line with what the others have already expressed? What does that tell you about where she might fall in the hierarchy of the group?
Finally, let’s look at a scene with all four characters—Wendy, Kenzie, Sapphire, and Emily—in which a fifth character, Christian, who was recently introduced in the book, now functions as the subject of conversation for the four young women:
“Christian’s hot, Kenz,” Emily observed. “And he’s totally into you.”
“He’s pathetic.” Kenzie picked a long black hair from the strap of her tank top and rubbed it between her delicate fingers until it sifted to the ground. “Does he even know that me and Evan are kind of a thing now? Evan would beat his ass if he saw Christian ogling my boobs like that.”
“Yeah,” Emily said, quickly reevaluating her opinion. “I guess he is kind of sad.”
“His party should be good, though,” Kenzie said. She took out her phone. “I’m going to tell Evan to meet us there after the game.”
“What about that other guy?” Sapphire said. “Wendy, he was staring at you.”
“He wasn’t staring at me,” I objected. “I mean, he just likes Springsteen.”
“Staring. Like a stalker.”
“He seemed cool,” I ventured.
“Code for ‘I want to bang him,’” laughed Emily.
“Well, you’ll get your chance,” Kenzie said. “Christian’s parties are always out of control. Come on. Let’s go find a seat.”
What have you learned about Wendy from this conversation? How about Emily? How does Jessie Ann Foley illustrate that Kenzie is the one in control of the group? Whereas the previous scene showed how the four characters interacted when the topic was themselves and their appearances, this scene depicts the four of them talking about someone else, which is another way of developing their characters.
It reinforces the roles that each of them plays within the group, but again, without resorting to lines of background information or explanation, which readers tend to get bored with. Instead, the dialogue is punchy and authentic—and it moves the plot forward by setting up a conflict between Kenzie’s two romantic interests, as well as hinting at a possible love interest for Wendy herself.
Now it’s your turn!
To work on dialogue in your own writing, here are some exercises to try:
1. Write a scene with your main character and their best friend, or come up with two characters. Think about three major differences between them. How can you convey those differences through conversation, without actually articulating them on the page? Now reverse the dialogue and give the characters each other’s lines. If the lines feel interchangeable, can you pinpoint why that is? You might have more work to do developing dialect and character in each person’s speech, so it feels distinct.
2. One way to improve the dialogue you write is by listening to other people’s conversations, or writing down your own. Transcribe a recent exchange you overheard, or that you had with someone else. Can you identify how this conversation might function in a book—for example, as character development or to move the plot forward? Could you adapt this conversation to use as dialogue for your own writing?
What other writing advice do you want to hear? Tell us in the comments below!