YA Mysteries: Dialogue (The Voices in Your Head)

My favorite writing shirt.There is so much advice online about writing dialogue — and it’s often contradictory. One pro says “avoid slang” in a “young adult” (YA) mystery because it changes so quickly; another says using slang is the only way to sound real. Still, here are a few tried-and-true aspects of dialogue writing that apply particularly to YA mysteries:

1. Don’t insert dialogue to fill space — like every other component of a well-constructed mystery, the dialogue has to move the action along, raise questions, intensify suspense. Try outlining blocks of dialogue to form “units” (like Lego blocks) and test each one: Does it add to what you’re doing? Is it essential? For example:

Handguns weren’t for shooting game; they were for shooting people. Plus, unless the rules had changed, you couldn’t own one if you were under twenty-one.

“Comes with the job,” Destiny said.


She sighed. “Okay. I’m not trying to be mean, but how clueless are you?” (Lauren Myracle, Shine)

2. Show, don’t tell. For example:

Mom stands at the end of our table, holding an insulated lunch box aloft. “You forgot to stop by my office to get your lunch. Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

I reach across Nessa for the bag, but Mom holds it out of reach. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”

Swallowing a sigh, I introduce her. She shakes Nessa’s hand. “I knew your sister, such a wonderful girl. Let me know if you ever want to talk.”

Nessa nods and ducks her head. Mom turns her attention to Jordan. “Mr. Summers. I trust you’re keeping a good eye out for these ladies?” (CJ Lyons, Broken)

3. Not sure whether it sounds right? Trying for the crisp pace that snappy YA material often provides, or the slow richness of literary thriller? (I’m thinking of Wiley Cash’s new A Land More Kind Than Home.) Decide on the style you want. Then, most important when you have a draft of a dialogue unit, try reading it out loud. Better yet, get someone else to read it out loud to you. For example:

“I need fifty dollars. Tonight.”

“Are you in trouble? Is somebody after you?”

“My brother Saulie’s in jail. I need to get him out.”

“Oh, Essie. How awful. What did he do?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, impatience puncturing my voice. “I need the money. Right now.” (Jacqueline Davies, Lost)

[This component comes with advice from John Steinbeck, too: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”]

Last but not least, a good YA mystery never “talks down” but “talks with.” Consider this: The Sherlock Holmes mysteries can be considered part of today’s suspense and detection fiction list for teens. When all else fails, pull out your favorite Baker Street tale and re-live the adventure of discovering the genre. I want to write something that’s at least that good! For example:

“And the murderer?”

“Is a tall man, left-handed, limps with the right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a grey cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt penknife in his pocket. There are several other indications, but these may be enough to aid us in our search.”

Lestrade laughed. “I am afraid that I am afraid that I am still a sceptic,” he said. “Theories are all very well, but we have to deal with a hard-headed British jury.”

“Nous verrons,” answered Holmes calmly. “You work your own method, and I shall work mine.” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

Next week: YA mysteries at the 2013 New England Crime Bake!



About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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