Just try stuff.
And one of my favorite exercises to try is the dialogue-only story. Here’s the challenge:
No scene setting.
No he said/she said.
Just two (or more) characters talking. That’s it.
Limiting the text to dialogue forces us to think cinematically, an essential skill for picture book writers. Imagine those 32 pages as a movie, the opening scene pulling you in, each page turn propelling the story forward until it’s all wrapped up on that final, satisfying page.
Even if you ultimately decide you don’t want to limit the manuscript to dialogue, this exercise is an excellent way to hear your characters’ voices. You can always fill in the action and description later if you feel they’re needed.
If you’ve got a young child around, you might notice another feature of dialogue-only books: they’re great for paired reading. Kids often memorize their “parts” before they’re actually able to read. (I’m a big fan of Mary Ann Hoberman’s You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series for that reason.)
So read these books, and if you’re itching to try your own dialogue-only story, you’ll find some prompts on my Pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/lindaashman/. You’ll also find a board with additional books that didn’t make it on this list—it was tough to limit it to ten!
An exuberant little girl repeatedly instructs her dad to ask her what she likes as they go walking on a colorful fall day. Note the child-like voice of the girl and the loving and patient voice of the dad.
Here we have three characters speaking—a boastful cheetah and the two little cats who try to outsmart him so they can win the big race for a change.
Mo Willems gives this book the feel of a silent movie. A conversation between a fox and a goose, interrupted by a chorus of concerned baby geese, leads to a surprise ending.
A model of brevity and limited vocabulary with just 120-odd words—but only 20 different words. It’s the only example in which there’s an actual attribution. The first page—Mama says,
Nap. Baby says, NO NAP!—establishes that Mom’s speech will be in italics and Baby’s in regular font for the rest of the book.
A conversation between a young frog who wants to be anything but a frog, an older frog who tells him he’s got to be a frog, and a wolf who makes him feel grateful for what he is.
This is older than most of the examples, but it’s so clever I didn’t want to leave it out. It’s also unusual in that we never actually see the two characters having the conversation.
Jan Thomas is a master at creating funny and interactive dialogue-only books. In this one, her “brave cowboy” turns out to be a bit of a scaredy-cat.
Through the use of speech bubbles, we see that friends and family have many different
nicknames for Elizabeth, much to her dismay. As the title suggests, she sets them all straight, loudly and clearly.
It’s not all that recent, and I’m pretty sure you’ve all read it, but it was such a huge hit I couldn’t leave it off the list.
Before writing Rain! and No Dogs Allowed—both very brief, dialogue-only books—I read a lot of wordless books to help me understand how illustrations advance a story with minimal text. I also sketched out a bunch of scribbly storyboards to figure out pacing, adding dialogue along the
I know writers are often concerned about what a dialogue-only manuscript looks like. Given that the illustrations tell so much of the story, how do you convey that in the text? If you’d like to see two examples, the manuscripts for Rain! And No Dogs Allowed! are available on my website: lindaashman.com. (Look for the “For Writers” section at the bottom.)
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