You have probably already realized that writing dialogue is really a challenge. We've talked about how it has to be indicative of the age and life experience of the character, how it should move the story along, and how to avoid certain regional dialects and most slang. So...what else is there?
Let's talk today about vocabulary. You always need to use the kind of vocabulary that your readers will understand. If you are writing for young children, picture books or easy readers, your vocabulary needs to be very simple, basic, and even repetitious. Children who are read to like to hear the same words over and over again, and they like to hear words that rhyme. The kids who are just learning to read by themselves need to see the same words repeated so they become accustomed to them, and to comprehending their meaning.
For middle grade and young adults, vocabulary is still important. I think it is this age that is the most difficult to write dialogue for. Kids in middle school don't want to be "talked down" to, so you certainly don't want to use vocabulary that you just used in writing an easy reader. On the other hand, you don't want to make the dialogue sound like they are in college. It's particularly difficult if you don't have kids around you that are 10, 11 and 12 years old, or are just getting into their teens. So what do you do? Ask if you can volunteer in a middle school, or go to the mall where kids this age hang out and listen to the way they talk. But the best thing to do is to read, read, read.
One of the things I did when I first started to write for this age was to check out books from the library. I took them home and sat down to read the dialogue. I really didn't care much what the story was about, I simply wanted to take note of the way the authors put words, phrases and expressions into the mouths of their characters. I learned a lot from that.
The same thing goes for YA writing. If you don't know how teens talk today, you can read books. But...one thing you have to remember is that "teen talk" changes from day to day. Thus, the vocabulary that is present in books published 5 years ago, or even 2 years ago, may not be exactly the same as teens use today. Because of this, and because so much of their conversation is slang or their own versions of common words and expressions, teens are the hardest of all to write for. At least, I think so. So, how do you get around this?
First of all, you have to know your characters. You have to know what their attitudes are, what little quirks they might have, if they use gestures such as rolling their eyes or 'talking with their hands,' and what emotions they might be expressing at any given time. These characteristics all play a part in how someone speaks, both in real life and on paper. Each of us has a distinct speech pattern, so you want to reflect that in both your vocabulary and in how the character uses that vocabulary. For example: almost all people speak in contractions: can't, don't, aren't, etc. But in my last novel, one of the main characters had lived in Europe for several years, and she had learned a very formal way of speaking so she never used contractions. She always said...do not, will not, should not, and so on. This was a distinct speech pattern which also resulted in a more formal vocabulary for her.
Second, dialogue also has a rhythm to it. If your vocabulary is stiff and formal, your dialogue is going to be the same, and the pacing of the words may seem stilted and unnatural. If this is the way your character is, that's fine, because this kind of dialogue with its more formal vocabulary will be indicative of her life experience and attitude. An example: Lisa is the girl with the European background, and although she is American, she has learned to be very stiff and formal in her speech, so her vocabulary must reflect that. When asked if she could do a particular cheerleading stunt, she replied, "Certainly I can do it. I do not understand why you would question my ability at all. After all, I have learned many complex moves in my European education." This from a 13 year old!
If your character is upbeat, active and enthusiastic about life, then the vocabulary needs to reflect that. For example: my MC asked her new best friend, Amberley, if she wanted to learn to ride. Amberley grins, and says, "Oh yeah! If you don't mind watching my backside bumping up and down in the saddle!" Not only is the vocabulary different, so is the rhythm of speech.
Vocabulary also reflects the emotions a character is feeling. A character can lie, get angry, scheme, feel sad or apathetic...in other words, have the same emotions we have. Dialogue needs to reflect these emotions through the choice of vocabulary and also actions or gestures of the character. As an example, read this paragraph and see if both vocabulary and actions set the dialogue up to reflect the emotions each person is feeling.
"Hey, Alison, how about going to a movie tonight?"Brad put his arm across Alison's shoulders.
"Uh, no, I'm...uh...I've got homework to do." She slipped out from under his arm.
"What's wrong with you, anyway? Now that you've got that inheritance, I'm not good enough for you?" He slammed his hand down on the table.
"It's not that, honestly. Umm...it's just...well, I just have to stay home. Please don't...don't get mad!" She blinked rapidly, her pulse racing.
Can you identify the emotions here? If I took away the actions, could you still tell by the dialogue/vocabulary that one person is angry and the other is frightened? Remember, too, that when a character is expressing an intense emotion, their speech pattern changes and so does their vocabulary.
So the bottom line concerning dialogue and vocabulary is this: Know your character! This is so important. Know how she or he will act or react in a given situation. Know that men and women don't have the same speech patterns, nor do teens sound like adults. When your characters are displaying a sense of humor, or becoming angry...whatever the emotion...keep your dialogue consistent with the kind of vocabulary that most easily and clearly defines that emotion. Most of all, keep your vocabulary consistent with the age and life experience of your characters.