Saturday, August 6, 2016

Talking Heads, Dialogue and Picture Books

By Lacey Gunter

The role dialogue plays in a novel can be complex, but is usually necessary. It is difficult to write an entire novel without dialogue. At the same time good dialogue takes skill and practice for it to effectively move the plot forward and help us to connect with the characters.

As with most things, the rules are different when writing a picture book. There is no rule for or against including dialogue in a picture book. In a little informal survey I conducted on a sample of newly published pictures books, I found that about half of the books contained dialogue and the other half had no dialogue. Moreover, among the books that did contain dialogue, a small portion of them only had dialogue through speech bubbles within the illustrations which were not a necessary part of reading the text. So, less than half of the books actually had dialogue that was integrated into the text. At the same time, some pictures books are classified as dialogue only picture books.

So what exactly are the rules for dialogue in a picture book? There are really only two rules that I know of.  The first rule is don't let the dialogue detract from the visual experience of the book. That may seem obvious, but it is easy to violate if you are not actively considering it. A section of dialogue that sets up a conflict or reveals aspects of a characters personality may work great in a novel. But in a picture book it can turn out to be just a bunch of pictures of talking heads, not very much for the illustrator to work with and not very fun for the reader.  There is a fine balance required between dialogue and action for a picture book to still be a satisfying visual experience.

The best way I know to recognize when dialogue is a problem in a picture book is to put on your illustrators hat and ask yourself, "If I were an illustrator, how would I illustrate this?" One technique is to break the text of your picture book into the 24-28 pages of text and then describe or sketch an image for each page of text. This is called story-boarding and you don't have to be an illustrator or good at art to do this. It will help you recognize if a section of text is going to be difficult or boring to illustrate.

If all you can think of to illustrate the text are two people sitting or standing together talking, this is a problem. Even two or three pages of this will get old quick. If this is the case, time to edit. Consider condensing or removing some of your dialogue. At the very least get your characters moving. Get them doing at least a few other actions while they are talking like baking cookies, or planting a garden.

The second rule only applies to nonfiction or nonfictionesque books, picture book or not. When using dialogue in a nonfiction or historical style picture book, be open and honest when dialogue is invented or assumed rather than an actual quote. This really should be open to the reader, meaning the child, not just a parent who might have to hunt for it in a bibliography or small side note at the end.

So play around and have fun with dialogue in your picture books. But remember, picture books are more than just a short story or a beautiful sounding section of text. Picture books are a fully visual experience. Talking heads, move along.

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