Children’s Writing Weblog

The YA View: Keeping it Real with Teen Dialogue

Posted on: December 1, 2010

Editor's note: Audrey is a 13-year-old student from California who is currently working on her own novel between school, sports and choir. She's also a Contributing Editor to Write4Kids, focusing on middle grade and YA literature. If you have writing-related questions for Audrey, or want to suggest a topic for a future column, please contact Laura at Laura@write4kids.com.

 

Hey!

This is my second column, and I’m totally like, taking on the topic of like, slang, n’ stuff.

I’ve critiqued manuscripts written for a YA audience before, and one of the major things that stand out to me about these manuscripts is dialogue. Nothing is better than reading a manuscript in which the author really knows his/her audience and the way they talk. Other times, I’m wincing while I read—the author has no clue.

One of the worst things (in my opinion) an author can do with teen language is mess up the characterization. Say you’re writing a novel about a girl named Anaìs. So, Anaìs is a child prodigy, who lives in Seattle, and is reserved and sort of icy.

How would Anaìs say hi?

If you said, “Ayy, girl, wassup?!”, it wouldn’t fit her character, right? However, some authors tend to try and oversimplify teen language, or they give every character the same way of speaking.

Anaìs would probably say something like, “Hello (insert name of other character here). How are you?” Something a bit more reticent and subdued.

Another thing I’ve seen authors do is have every character in a novel talk like this: "OMG, that’s totally, like, really cool, like, I can’t believe it, ya know?!” Sorry, but teenagers don’t really talk like that. I, for one, have overused the word ‘like’ before. But no one wants to read my tendency to stutter ‘like…like… like’ when I don’t know what to say.

An insanely annoying thing that A TON of authors do is spell things phonetically based on the way their character speaks. For example, “Ohmuhgawd, I cannawt bee-lieeve she’d do thaht.”

For some reason, that phonetic-spelling thing is probably my biggest language pet peeve. Don’t do it. Please. It feels sort of tacky and also a bit patronizing. It’s okay to say “so-and-so had very affected speech” but please don’t write her speech affectation.

Also, another thing that annoys me is when your protagonist is 17 years old and talks like she has a Ph.D. from Harvard. I know you’re trying to make her seem all sophisticated and smart, but come on. No true teenager talks like that. Unless she’s a 173 year old vampire, in which case… never mind.

Slang is hard. I strongly advise against writing a novel not set in your city (or fictional city like yours) or state. It’s really annoying when a person tries to write a novel set in your city, and they get it all wrong.

Seriously, if you try to write a book about kid living on the California coast and he’s all “wicked!” or “groovylicious” I will throw the book across the room. Well, maybe not literally, but figuratively? Definitely. Anyone who lives in California knows that we don’t talk like that.

I definitely think slang is regional. There is generic slang, and there is regional slang, and I’d rather read a novel with a more regional breed of slang. A teen in Los Angeles and a teen in Chicago would have a different jargon. I know words that only people who live in my city would say, and I’ve been to other states and I have no clue what the heck they’re talking about.

I don’t think online social networking affects slang at all. You’re not usually friends with people who don’t live near you; like if you lived in Boston you wouldn’t be friends with someone who lived in Nashville. And, sorry, but most of the “teen” shows on television aren’t exactly, well, “teen.” In my opinion, those shows have a more generic slang as opposed to a regional slang. Like, for example, the TV show Glee. I watch Glee. I like Glee. But it doesn’t seem like a show about a high school—perhaps a college. They don’t even really use slang—they just have pithy insults, usually said by the adult characters on the show. Although I like the show a lot, it doesn’t feel like it’s even about teenagers.

Let’s say you live in Denver, and your story has to take place in New York. First, I would say to read a couple YA books based in New York—the more contemporary, less fantasy (even urban fantasy), the better. If your book selections mention “vampires” or “werewolves” or “magic” on their jacket copy, I would suggest choosing different books. This is because most of the vampire-werewolf-magic books I’ve read try to sound all sophisticated and the characters end up sounding like 50-year-olds. Like in the book City of Bones—great plot, but the characters seem either elderly or from the 1800s. For example: “We are called the Shadowhunters. The Downworlders would have less complimentary names for us.” (page 43, City of Bones).

Doesn’t that sound somewhat ridiculous coming from a 17-year-old boy?

Also, I would suggest Googling things like “slang in New York”, which I just did. A fairly reliable site to look at is Yahoo Answers.

Apparently “mad” is to New York City what “hella” is to the Silicon Valley.

Also, there are much better words for "cool". Cool is overused in attempt to make characters seem “teen”, and most teens I know don’t usually say “cool”. We have much more varied vocabulary.

For example:

“I just finished my math homework for the weekend.”

“Sick! Can I copy?”

Or

“I bought the new MAC lip gloss. I’m so excited!”

“Yay! Happy face!”

I cannot stress how important it is to get current teen language if you’re writing for teens. A lot of times, the language in YA books seems really dated and not authentic. I’ve critiqued manuscripts in which the characters act like they’re straight out of the 70s, but they have iPhones and Facebook accounts.

So, even though you grew up in the 70s, you’re characters are living in the 21st century. Beware of the foxy Dawn in her bell bottoms and polyester halter top groovin’ at the disco.**  She’s not your friend if you’re writing for modern teens.***

**Yes, I have read this manuscript before.

***Of course, if you are writing a novel based in the 70s, then Dawn is perfect!


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