14

There was a recent question that caused quite a stir around here, not so much for the question itself, but more the purpose of the question. That aside, there was a valid question being asked, and it was one that a number of writers may need help with from time to time.

Let's say I am writing a young adult novel, and I want the dialogue between my characters to be more "realistic" and in tune with the current times. How can I know if that dialogue would be in touch with younger readers? Are there any sources that can be recommended to help compare dialogues, whether it be a web site or another book?

10 Answers 10

8

I'm 18- so although I feel qualified to give an answer; thats a very broad question, and it can be a daunting task for any writer. Even though sometimes I reflect on a conversation I've had with my friends, and stand back and realise how it would be total nonsense to one of my parents- there are countless niches of slang for teens, all over the English speaking world.

Where do your teenagers live? What kind of things are they into? Who do they associate with? Who would they never associate with? What irritates them? What do they find cool?

The less ambitious and concerned you are with trying to make them sound like "teens" the better I'd say, it could come off as laughable. If you have/know any kids- just think about how they would respond to the situations in your writing, what would they say?

Watch some MTV (that may sound ridiculous but it all depends on what kind of teens you hope to depict, would they watch 'My Super Sweet 16' or some teenaged pregnancy trash? I find my generations use of language to be massively influenced by whatever's on TV).

Remember that where/when they come from is hugely significant. One of my favourite depictions of teens and their dialogue is Bret Easton Ellis' Less than Zero (but even thats quite a niche- 80's Californian late-teens/young adults, shades of valspeak etc)

10

I would be careful about being too specific with slang for teenagers. There are huge regional variations, and what may sound natural to teen readers in one region (or even part of town!) could sound unnatural and jarring to readers from not that far away.

You also have to make sure you aren't 'dating' your story, as slang changes fairly quickly over time.

This isn't to say that you should have your teen characters speaking like college professors, but just that discretion is valuable. Use 'teen speak' for seasoning, but not for the whole meal!

6

One of the things that first came to mind on this is to address it the same as any research you would do for any other novel. If you write a book about a French character, you may have to look up certain phrases in French. If you want to feature a younger character, do some research to get a sense of how they speak, as well as their mannerisms.

One way to do this might be to go to Amazon and look through their Kindle bestsellers in the Young Adult category. Pick a book that appears to be doing well and buy it. You can then compare the dialogue and mannerisms of that book's characters to compare to your own.

Another possible source for research would be to find someone to interview. If you have teens at home (as I do), or if you have nieces or nephews, you can start there. Another option would be to volunteer at a church Sunday school class for teens. This would give you an opportunity to hear them carry on conversations and observe them in a social setting.

The main point is to do your research. I'm sure others can chime in with additional sources for conducting such research, but this should offer a couple of options to get you started.

  • 2
    Since not everyone attends church, I might alternatively suggest Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Police Athletic League, and local high school sports games. – Lauren Ipsum Nov 7 '11 at 20:25
4

One other thing is that if you decide to use slang words, look them up on urban dictionary (it's an online descriptive dictionary). This will give you a decent slice of the ways the word is used, and connotations it carries.

4

Although these are useful suggestions and answers, I believe @MarkBaker's answer is key. I'm 26 with 3 younger siblings (very much in touch with my childish side) and I believe that there are 4 important sides to this issue.

1. The "dialogue is not realistic", which is nicely summed up by @Mark Baker.

2. Understanding how slang develops is as crucial for imitating or representing it authentically. Different groups of people will develop and use slang that follows patterns that may be unique within each group, and not necessarily conscious (at least to begin with). These patterns may make sense in a certain language (in France some use verlan : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verlan which follows a mapped out pattern) Translating the french verlan into English, Danish, German etc. would probably not make sense. Sure, you would end up with "weird words" that could keep the definition from the original language, but it wouldn't make sense the way it used to. I'm not saying it has to, I'm simply saying that understanding the language and its rules may be crucial to why that specific slang is used. Looking up slang in the Urban Dictionary as mentioned here can be useful, but you still risk using 'established slang' in a way that isn't authentic to the reader (or isn't relatable to a certain group of readers).

3. Understanding "why" slang develops. Of course language changes over time, but I will focus on a social value of slang. I believe the use of slang is a natural part of young people's process of finding themselves and their place in society (sorry, no sources at this moment). Establishing in-group/out-group relations can be done almost entirely with language use. It may be more relevant to focus on "the average young adult attitude/state of mind" than the exact use of words by any specific group of young people (unless you are actively representing a certain group). Slang can be utilized to a point where even if you recorded a group og people talking, chances are you wouldn't even know what to make of it. Two different groups of young people may be completely unaware of the definitions and uses of slang in the other group. I know most people would understand only about half of the things that my friends and I say - when together. Within my group of friends we have more than 20 words for everyday feelings, events, types of people, actions and so on, and the connection between the words used and the definition it not obvious to out-group individuals, of course. I say 'of course' because we value the fact that we can use these words around the subject of our communication without compromising ourselves.

4 For every word or family of slang words there are people that develop the slang and people that simply adopt it. This is a tricky balance and something that may be worth keeping in mind. Who says what is NEVER without importance. I will give two examples the clarify, the second in particular being based on personal experience:

  • A: A student in a classroom discusses something "cool" with a another student. The teacher overhears this discussion and joins in using slang he has heard them use before: "Yeah, that dude has so much swag, it's cray-cray!" The students will probably (consciously or subconsciously) react in two ways going forward: 1: "Wow, our teacher understands us. Respect!" (not usual). 2. Wow, our teacher uses "swag" and "cray-cray". Now those terms are lame!". Don't underestimate the effect of slang becoming mainstream.

  • B: Two friends use "a new word" or expression within their larger group of friends and one not-as-close friend becomes obsessed with the new word. If this not-so-close friend is considered less "alpha" or less respected, he alone can "ruin" the new expression. This can be either because of over-use (yes, use of slang also has an internal balance) or because that word is now connected to that individual (and the people he represents), which in this case makes it "less cool".

Perhaps you could try a different approach:

Create your own slang for the group of young adults. Do this based on your (current or in-development) understanding of the "how" and "why" for slang development. Yes, you risk dating your work by basing some of the slang on interests within the group that are "modern", but a lot of slang is timeless. The origin of the slang may be obviously dated, but in my opinion that doesn't necessarily date your work. Test how readers react to it, especially young adults. If done authentically, I predict they will relate to the group even if they use completely different slang from the readers own group.

  • 2
    If possible, an extra +1 for point 4B. Had never thought about it but it's so completely true. – Sara Costa Feb 7 '17 at 13:57
  • Thank you. Language is powerful yet fragile. I've lost many great expressions to horrible users... (I'm exaggerating). – storbror Feb 8 '17 at 12:40
  • 2
    As a parent, I purposefully started saying 'dope' around my children to get them to stop using it, because 1) I don't like it 2) it means weed to older folks (and has other meanings too) 3) they were saying it all the time (and 'Gucci,' too) It's all gucci, so dope. They stopped using them, I was happy! – DPT Oct 20 '17 at 14:43
3

Dialogue is not realistic. Human being speak very tediously and brokenly. What makes dialogue authentic is not the vocabulary or diction but the motivation. What does this person say, based on who they are, what they want, what they are trying to conceal, and what they want people to think of them.

It is not that you can't convey certain elements of the tone of realistic speech, but it will only be certain notes, just enough to call realistic speech patterns to the reader's mind. What is far more important is to remember that every character presents a mask to the other characters, and their speech is designed to maintain that mask. What they choose to say, not how they say it, is the real key to authentic dialogue.

2

A tad late to the party but seems like this post had some activity and I wanted to throw in my own two cents on the matter being a young adult(28). I actually really hate when anime/books/movies try to throw in "hip" and "current" language. This one show I am currently watching uses a ton of young slang and it really takes away any meaningful dialog because you have a hard time taking what the character says seriously.

It is more annoying than anything else. What do people always say about youth? Full of energy and passion right? So make the dialog energetic. Use less big words. Don't focus so much on the flavor of the month phrases because they are constantly changing. The internet/facebook/instagram has made phrases and words really famous then die out before anyone realizes.

2

Believable dialogue of any kind requires intimate familiarity. For example, if the writer is an adolescent, they can simply write as they speak. If the writer is the parent of adolescents, then they can attempt to write as their children speak.

But it is important to recognize that people not only speak differently at different ages and eras, but also in different regions and social circles.

Many writers will go to a public space and eavesdrop on actual conversations by real people, who are simillar to the characters they wish to depict in their stories. Buses, parks, cafes, and Starbucks are great areas for studying real life dialogue.

2

Go to the geographic area of your novel. Listen to young adults. Tape young adults. Make sure they are unaware of your research.

Compare their conversations with those you write/wrote. I'll be so bold as to suggest that if you got the language exact you might not attract enough readers. It is a tightrope. And the language can quickly date a work.

BTW, if your characters, plot, premise, and message aren't interesting a publisher won't care whether you got the "speak" right.

  • 6
    Just be careful not to get arrested - many people are uncomfortable with the idea of adults following teenagers around to listen to their conversations, for obvious reasons. – Yamikuronue Nov 11 '11 at 15:38
1

I "sprinkled" my young adult novel with "youngspeak." Terms like, IMHO, or NSFW. And make reference to iphones and "googling" information, as young people would do.

Not a lot of this, and certainly not "filling" a book with this stuff. Just an occasional reminder of who these people are.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.