This article, written by Marsha Zinberg is from the August 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
I can still remember a marketing debrief from my early days at Harlequin, when the folks on the ninth floor discovered to their surprise that a romance novel with a toddler pictured alongside the heroine and hero on the cover had outsold most of the other books offered that quarter. Babies, it turned out, helped sell books.
These days, it’s a given that certain genres in popular fiction can benefit enormously from the inclusion of child characters, as they offer wonderful opportunities for creating subtext, irony and humor, and, of course, can do much to help reveal the character of the protagonists. And that’s why it’s so important to get these young characters to come across the page as authentically as possible—as fully realized people, rather than the cutesy, over-the-top stereotypes I’ve sometimes encountered.
Many authors are lucky enough to have a natural ear for dialogue, including knowing instinctively how young children speak. But even though they may be parents, some writers rely on memory that may be faulty or, worse yet, assume they can just make up how toddlers acquire and express language. But with a speech-language pathologist daughter to whom I’ve turned to authenticate children’s dialogue many times during my editing career, I’ve learned that language development is not random, and in fact usually follows a very predictable pattern. Understanding that pattern can be a terrific help in generating children’s dialogue that sounds accurate and natural.
Sound and vocabulary development
Let’s say Jessica and Mark are taking 18-month-old Amy to the zoo. The dialogue might go something like this:
“Look, Amy! Can you see the monkey?” Mark pointed to a tree branch at the top corner of the enclosure.
“Up, dada! Up!”
Mark obligingly hoisted the toddler onto his shoulders for a better view.
“Montey!” she shouted. “OOO! AHH!”
“Yes, it’s a monkey! He’s saying, ‘OOO-OOO AHH-AHH!’”
Amy’s dialogue is consistent with developmental milestones for her age. Here are a few to keep in mind:
- Toddlers can understand many more words than they can say. At 16 months, a toddler may understand 100-200 words but may say fewer than 50.
- The first consonant sounds to develop for English-speaking children are p, m, n, h, w, and b. These are followed by k, g, t, d, and ng. At this age, it would be unlikely for a child to use consonant clusters such as tr or sp. So at two, it’s most likely still an itsy bitsy pider.
- The first categories of words they will use are usually content words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. And those nouns will be concrete, like dog, rather than abstract, like joy.
- First words are usually not more than two syllables in length.
- For sentences, a good rule of thumb is: two-word sentences for two-year-olds, three-word sentences for three-year-olds, four- or more word sentences for four-year-olds.
By 18 months, toddlers begin to identify themselves by name. There is also a rapid vocabulary and sentence structure growth after this time; some precocious children (Aren’t the majority of fictional children precocious?) can have vocabularies of 500 words by their second birthday, and they will also start to use prepositions and pronouns, though not always correctly: Me go to the zoo! They are able to use their words for many purposes, from labeling their toys to asking where Mommy is, to wailing a protest at Grandpa.
Grammar and sentence structure
Amy is now about three and a half years old, and her dad, Mark, is totally stressed out because the babysitter didn’t show up. (Jessica is no longer on the scene, having disappeared under very mysterious circumstances!)
“Okay, kiddo, you’re going to stay with Grandma today,” Mark told his daughter as he bundled her awkwardly into her car seat.
“Daddy go to work?”
“Yup, Daddy’s going to work, and Daddy is late, and you’re going to Grandma’s.”
“No! I go to work too! I go with Daddy! No Grandma’s!”
Amy’s grammar and sentence structure has become a lot more sophisticated in a relatively short time frame. Some of this is due to a child’s ability to begin using auxiliary verbs, regular past tense forms, and some progressives and adverbs, which certainly makes writing dialogue a lot easier and more interesting.
Here are some grammar and sentence structure factors to keep in mind for a two- to three-year-old character:
- Transitioning to longer word combinations may actually have some toddlers using three- and four-word combinations by 24 months: they may combine two two-word phrases, so that “baby eat” + “eat cookie” becomes “baby eat cookie,” or they will add information to shorter sentences that they already say, so they might add “big” to “eat cookie” to come up with “eat big cookie.”
- They will also combine words to describe how objects or actions are located in space: “push me” at the playground or “doggie house” to describe where they stashed their baby sister’s blankie.
- Because they are beginning to pretend in new ways, such as giving toys a voice, or acting out events they have heard of but never experienced (like being on a pirate ship), sentences become richer and more imaginative.
- Irregular past tenses will continue to up the cuteness factor of toddlers’ speech sometimes all the way into their fifth or even sixth year: my four-year-old grandson told me proudly that he “writed with a cursor on the computer.” When his same-aged cousin was corrected for saying “I standed on the ladder,” he, still mixing up regular and irregular past tense, typical for children this age, altered his sentence to, “Okay. I stooded on the ladder.” This little guy understood his language needed to show something that had already happened, but despite this, children in preschool or even at early school age don’t have the same ability as adults to understand and describe time. Concrete markers, such as “two sleeps” or “one Paw Patrol” are much better understood and expressed than “three weeks ago,” “in the summer,” or “in half an hour.” Similarly, young children express time differently than adults. “Tomorrow’s tomorrow is more likely to be uttered by a child getting ready to start school than “two days from now.”
Theory of mind
Mark and Amy, now four and a half, are out shopping for a birthday present for her best friend.
“Okay, Amy, what should we get Lily for her birthday?”
“Slime. When I was at her house, we played with slime, and Lily really loves it! But I thought it was gross. For my birthday, I want new paint.”
I’ve found that one of the essential areas of child development that trips up writers relates to what psychologists term “theory of mind.” This is simply defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge—to ourselves and others. And the above piece of Amy’s dialogue demonstrates that she can now do this.
In fact, as children move toward the age of four, they continue to develop a deeper understanding of what goes on in their and others’ minds. They come to understand that people talk and act on the basis of the way they think the world is, even when their thoughts do not reflect reality. As a result, at this age, your child characters can now begin to lie, trick and joke with others—all of which makes them better able to communicate about individual experiences and a lot more fun to write!
When you are writing young children’s dialogue, don’t be tempted to jump the gun and create conversations out of step with the child’s typical stage of development. Spend some time with a child the age you want to portray, or take yourself off to the playground, sit down on a bench, and just listen to how kids speak and interact. It will be a win-win for your adult characters…as well as your readers!