Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

The Tricky World of Children's Fiction

The Tricky World of Children’s Fiction

Ever since I started taking my writing craft seriously, I have read a lot of advice on how to write dialogue. Specifically on dialogue tags.

Whether I’m reading writing advice books, studying creative writing, or perusing blogs on what to do and what not to do, the advice is all the same.

1. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’.

People don’t see ‘said’. More importantly, don’t suffer from Dialogue Tag Thesaurus Syndrome.


“Where are we?” Marina whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jacob answered.
“It looks like a cave,” Marina replied.
“It’s too dark to tell,” Jacob murmured.

This is good advice. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘trying too hard to avoid said‘ you see in some writing. Although I think there is a place for using some of these words sparingly to help add to the description and texture of the dialogue. Especially where word count is tight, like in children’s fiction.

2. Where possible, avoid using dialogue tags at all. Instead work in some action to help move the dialogue on and make it flow better.


“It’s so beautiful.” Marina bent down and looked at the flower.
Jacob glared. “It’s girly.”
“No it’s not!” Marina gave him a furious look.
“Well, I think it is.” Jacob shrugged and turned away.

This is fine in moderation, but used too much I think it slows the dialogue down and makes it hard to read.

3. If you only have two characters speaking, you only need to identify them every few lines.


“Come on, let’s go, Jacob.” Marina ran through the woods.
“Okay, I’m coming. Slow down!”
“Can’t catch me!”
Jacob heard Marina giggling and followed the sound. “Oh yes I can.”

I use this a lot in adult fiction, but I would use it sparingly when writing for young children. They read slowly and get lost and it’s easy to forget who is talking, unless it’s obvious from the voice of the character.

Plenty of examples of 'she beamed'

Plenty of examples of ignoring advice no.4

4. Don’t use dialogue tags that have nothing to do with talking. You cannot grin, laugh, giggle, sneer, sigh, groan, moan and talk at the same time. You can whisper, yell, shout, murmur, cry out, but only in moderation.


“I bet you can’t climb that tree,” Jacob sneered.
“Oh yes I can,” Marina chuckled. “Watch me.”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jacob cautioned. “Girls can’t climb.”
“Don’t be silly,” Marina sighed. “You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”

Now this is the advice I have the biggest problem with. I hear it everywhere, particularly in the writing course I’m doing at the moment. I’ve trained myself to always put the action separate. “Oh yes I can,” she said, grinning. or to use a full stop. “Oh yes I can.” She grinned at him. But since starting to write children’s fiction, I’ve discovered two things.

a) Using she said, grinning uses too many words. It makes the dialogue slow and static

b) No one else cares about this rule. Seriously. I’m reading a children’s book a day and every single one happily uses, She grinned, she giggled, she chuckled, she frowned. They even use, she hissed, when the dialogue doesn’t contain a sibilant word. (Advice says you can’t hiss ‘Granny’ because it doesn’t contain an s.)

So, here’s the rub. As a new writer, do I follow the writing advice or the examples? I have trained myself so well I actually cringe when reading ‘she sniggered’ as a dialogue tag, especially when reading out loud to my children. But they don’t care. To them it’s normal. It makes the writing flow, it adds texture, and – best of all – they understand it.

Anyone who thinks that writing for children is easy is wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂

Have you come across this? Do you have a problem with ‘she grinned’? Do you always follow writing advice?

6 thoughts on “Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

  1. “She grinned” is quite common in children’s books if my memory serves me. And I don’t think I had any difficulty with it at the appropriate age. Great advice by the way and not just for children’s books. I think this pretty much applies to all dialogue writing when used in the right context, right? 🙂

  2. Thank you for this reminder. I’m doing editing today and this put me in the right frame of mind.

    I agree with 1,2, 3, and most of 4. I don’t agree with this: “You cannot …laugh, …and talk at the same time.”

    You can. I’ve seen people laughing and talking at the same time. My husband does it when he’s trying to tell a joke, though he does it less often nowadays. The laughter changes the pitch of the talking, making it rise and fall in a way that doesn’t sound like talking, but the words are understandable and if they’re understandable then it’s talking.

    People can also grin while they talk. I do it when I’m trying to pretend like nothing’s wrong.

    I think a large part of #4 has to do with emotional impact, not with two actions necessarily being incompatible. A grin usually comes first physically anyway and adds a bit of menace or mischievousness (depending on context), so you write it first.

    e.g. He grinned. “Do you really want to know where she is?”

    It would lose some of that emotion if you wrote it like this.

    “Do you really want to know where she is?” he grinned.

    In the first example, the emotion is set up before the dialogue begins. In the second, I’m reading dialogue that has no real impact because I don’t know the emotion behind it until afterward.

    But that’s just my take on it, and I do admit that my theories about writing can be strange.

    The only rule I’ve found in writing that is always true is this: Is the reader of this type of story reacting the way I want them to react to this scene? Anything beyond that is up for grabs, depending on context. Just my opinion, for what it’s worth.

  3. As an editor, I can surely testify that the “Yes,” she grinned habit is a plague upon the land. My beloved clients seem to follow one of two rules in scribbling dialogue: either “never use the word ‘said'” or “never use any attributions at all.” The result can be pretty entertaining stuff…though I’m afraid they don’t mean it that way!

    There’s a difference between “Yes.” He grinned. and “Yes,” he grinned. Don’t know whether the failure to sense that difference happens because of a tin ear or because the writer doesn’t know how to use punctuation. Whatever the cause, the effect on the reader is the same.

    • Thank you for your answer – I think this was exactly my point! I know the correct format but it seems no one else follows it! Either their editors are more lenient or… actually I don’t know the ‘or’ to that! Maybe there are different rules and leniencies for the under 10s market?

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