Let’s talk about the differences between writing children in screenplays and novels, versus writing adults!
This post is part of the Dialogue Doctor Series, where I talk about writing effective dialogue!
I wish I could say writing child characters was the same as writing adults but I’d be wrong. Further still, I wish I could say that writing children was an easy task. That’s even more wrong. We’ve all seen movies with children in them, which means we’ve all seen movies where the child’s lines are either exceptionally on-point or awkward and stilted.
(Note, this has nothing to do with the performance of child actors, but rather the lines they’re given within the script. Sure, sometimes children aren’t very good at acting, but that doesn’t mean they deserve bad dialogue.)
Oftentimes you can tell if someone has interacted with kids or not based on the dialogue they give their child characters. Frankly, being around children makes writing children’s dialogue easier, but sometimes we just can’t hang out with kids for no reason other than to hear them talk; that’d be weird.
Read on for a few key tips to focus on when it comes to writing children’s dialogue.
Age makes a difference. Children change fast.
A twelve-year-old is going to speak differently than a four-year-old. That’s just common knowledge. There are a few key points in child development where language evolves into our understanding of adult speech, and it’s important to figure out where your character falls on that timeline.
It’s weird to be a film blog and linking to Stanford Children’s Hospital, but this chart is incredibly helpful, as well as this list of teen language milestones. While it’s possible you’re writing a character that has not met these developmental milestones, using the linked charts as a guideline is a great place to start.
It makes sense that a lot of changes happen between being an infant to an adult; our language is no different. Your twelve-year-old character is going to speak differently from your seven-year-old character, but not as different as your four-year-old character.
And that’s awesome! Humans are awesome, and exploring all those intricacies is awesome! (Am I using ‘awesome’ too much? I’ve had a lot of coffee). Heck, a seven-year-old is going to speak differently than a six-year-old. Embracing these details is the best thing you can do in order to really flesh out your younger character. Enjoy the process.
Their speech patterns make sense.
Looking at the charts I linked above, you can see that there are phases where children start making sense to adults. One thing I have come across reading scripts and stories is that sometimes authors will write children’s language deliberately not making sense in an attempt to make it sound more childlike.
Don’t do that.
A five-year-old would probably not say, “I’m done-ing eat,” because that is not how the English language work, and children know this instinctively. All children learn language by mimicking the people around them, and they pick up the rules of language incredibly quickly, even if they cannot articulate it themselves.
The best way to write a younger child is to simplify their language. What is the simplest way you can say a line of dialogue? You can even start out writing a character as if they were an adult and parring it down to an appropriate age in the next draft.
For example, an adult might say, “I’m thinking of going out, can I get you anything? maybe some dinner?”
A child of five or six’s dialogue would be closer to, “I’m going to the store. What do you want?”
In the second example I’ve removed any ambiguity and abstract elements. These are things that develop later in life in language. A child may be able to think in more abstract ways, but that might not necessarily reflect in their speech or their dialogue interaction with others. We all know kids who love to daydream and have fantastic stories and imaginations, but a lot of that presents as matter of fact and unambiguous. Kids won’t say, “I’m fighting a metaphor for greed.” They’ll say, “I’m fighting a dragon.”
(You notice also that the line of dialogue the child says is also something an adult could reasonably say. Remember, children are imitating adults and sometimes they get it right.)
All children are different.
This reflects back to the concept of ‘unique voices,’ which I mentioned in my screenwriting mistakes article. This applies to young characters too. Children butt heads, have different motives, feel different levels of emotions, just like adults. If you’re writing a scene with multiple children, you should be able to tell them apart by their dialogue, even if they are the same age.
This is so hard. I get it. Unique voices are a challenge for a lot of writers and adding the concept of age to it makes it even worse.
Ultimately it boils down to making sure your child characters are whole characters. Oftentimes children turn into props. If they’re a minor character you can get away with it most of the time, but if they’re one of the main characters or even your protagonist, you’ve got to make them fully fleshed out. They are just another character you’re designing. At the end of the day, you should put in as much thought to the motives and life of your child characters as you do your adult ones.
Kids love Pizza – AKA, keep it simple.
This has less to do with dialogue than it does with how children interact with the world. Keep it simple. Kids don’t worry about taxes and mortality (for the most part), so your child characters probably won’t either. Kids almost universally love pizza. They love to play. They love to love. Don’t bog them down with adult concepts and worries.
The best advice I can offer though, after all is said and done, is to remember one very important thing:
You were a child once too.
Do you remember? There were universal truths and stupid adults and bullies and summer camps and teachers who just didn’t get it. There is a lot of emotion tied in our childhoods because children are ultimately very emotional people. Childhood memories stick more deeply because they’re more often emotion based rather than fact based.
You can channel those memories. Remember the adage, ‘write what you know’; it applies here. You were a child. It may feel like forever ago but you have some memories of those times that have stuck with you through the years and can translate into your child characters now. Don’t squander that resource.
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