Okay, let’s get this out there: I can’t give you the secret to writing dialogue for teen characters – especially your characters. I mean, they’re you. You’re creating people from nothing and giving them thoughts. Feelings.
But you, yourself, may not be a teenager. You may not have been a teen for many, many years, so asking your brain to think and speak like someone who hangs out in a completely different social circle is a pretty massive challenge. It can be kind of intimidating – asking characters to speak in a way you don’t.
But I have good news! Teens are people. They’re individuals, just like everyone else. So, there’s no one way to write teen dialogue, because there’s no one way that teens speak. You can be creative here, and I can help you with it.
I mean, helping is kind of what I do. And in doing so, I get to talk to a lot of teens. And listen to them talk to each other. As a high school teacher, I spend more time in dialogue with teens than I do with adults. My entire week is filled with authentic teenage dialogue, and I promise that it’s not scary.
It’s just talking.
If you treat your dialogue in YA as though teens are people rather than “teenagers,” you’re off to a good start. But I can give you a bit more insight. Some things to make your teens sound like teens without resorting to stereotypes. Because there’s nothing better than reading YA and feeling like the characters have produced their dialogue themselves – that they’ve agonized over the words, or spurted them out without considering their impact.
But that takes work. A whole lot of work. And it starts with acknowledging that dialogue in YA can never actually be truly authentic.
A major reason for this, in my experience, is that teens swear. A lot. And I’m not talking just the bad kids. I’m not referring to a strangled f-bomb when they close their binder rings on their fingers. I’m talking four letter words so frequently integrated into their regular conversations that many teens actually don’t know what I’m calling them on when I comment on it.
I’ve had teens swear while talking to me – not at me, just in conversation. And they didn’t even realize. I’ve had others swear during oral presentations. Words that were once vulgar or rude have just become, well, words.
I’m sure this generalization doesn’t apply to every teen, and won’t apply to every character. But are you using fluffy words like “gosh” or “crud” with your teen dialogue? Because if you are, it’s sure as hell not going to ring true.
Now, I’m not suggesting that your teen characters have to swear. But you probably don’t want to alienate your audience by having words they would never say come out of your characters’ mouths.
On that note, I recently read a YA novel where one character’s identifying phrase was “[insert noun] is my jam!” And I almost couldn’t finish it. Because every time I read it, I knew it wasn’t a teen saying the words.
Sure, I’ve heard teens use that expression. A lot. But not in a long while.
Publishing is such a slow industry that any slang in dialogue dates itself really, really fast. That means that it’s hard to make slang-infused dialogue authentic since it just comes off sounding like your character is behind the times instead of living in them.
I mean, if you’re writing a character who’s always two steps behind their peers in the coolness department, then go for it. Sling that slang. Otherwise? You don’t need it.
Instead of using slang, try sticking to more slow-moving colloquialisms. I know it sounds like such a small distinction, but it’s the difference between a character saying “Your dog is sick” and “Your dog is awesome.”
And, well, one of those is going to age a lot better than the other.
Okay, so there you have a couple of things to avoid, so when I bring up hedge words, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to scroll right on through. I mean, you’ve likely come across some piece of advice somewhere that suggest you do a search and destroy of every “just” or “like” or “kind of.” But this isn’t that kind of advice.
Teens use these words. All the time. So, although dialogue that doesn’t include them is more concise and could read as more emotional, it also comes across as inauthentic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that teens are still figuring out what they’re emotional about, or that they don’t want to tie themselves too closely to sentiments that others might not agree with – I couldn’t tell you. But what I can say is that a few well-placed hedge words in YA dialogue can actually increase its effectiveness – not decrease it.
That said, I’m not claiming to be a know-it-all when it comes to the way teens talk. Really, I can only speak as to how the teens I teach, well, speak. Things might be different where your characters live, but there’s a very simple way to test it out: listen to teens.
Seriously. Next time you’re at the movies or walking down the street, keep your ears open. Forget that you’re not supposed to listen in on conversations and pay attention instead. I’m not suggesting that you creep on groups of teenagers, just that you be present in the moment and tune in to what’s going on around you. Because teens aren’t an unknown species. They’re pretty cool people. They have a lot to say. And, chances are, they’re saying it while you’re around.