Writing YA and Teen Slang

Every generation has its own definitive style, expressions and slang. As an avid reader of young adult fiction, I cringe when a YA author’s attempt to capture realistic teen talk falls short of the mark. We’ve all read at least one book where this has happened — a novel where every line of dialogue is peppered with punctuation and slang designed to make the reader believe these are teens talking but in actuality it’s just awkward.

I got to thinking about generational slang and found an interesting post on How Stuff Works. They’ve listed by decade different slang sayings and their meanings. As a teen in the ’80s, “cool” meant “excellent” but according to the How Stuff Works list, “wicked” and “gnarly” were also slang for “cool” during that decade. Gnarly was totally early ’80s, while the slang wicked was more late ’80s. I think “awesome” and “coolness” were used more frequently among my friends. Like, totally. (Did you read that with a Valley Girl accent?)

As a writer, especially if you write YA, how do you embrace teen slang without sound completely ridiculous or out-of-date when you’re writing contemporary?

Literary agent Joanna Volpe in a guest post at Writer’s Digest suggests, “If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them.”

Confused? Don’t be. It’s actually simple.

Listen to teens whenever you can, at the coffee shop, the high school basketball game (boy, have I overheard some juicy conversations sitting in the bleachers during various high school sporting events!) or anywhere else these interesting creatures gather. Listen to the “teen” voice by watching current teen reality programming (think MTV and ABC Family) and by watching contemporary teen movies. If you have a teenager at home, listen to how he/she talks with friends.

Once you begin to pick up how contemporary teens talk to each other you need to incorporate that into your scenes without sacrificing tension, conflict and drama. It’s about finding that balance between believable and interesting. Every line of dialogue doesn’t have to contain slang. Not every teen uses slang. Some teens speak more formally, while others love to use slang they think their parents don’t or can’t understand.

It all comes down to knowing and fully understanding your teen characters. Has she been raised by parents who are both teachers? Her vocabulary most likely will be extensive. Are his closest friends members of a gang? His slang will reflect their influence. If you’re writing YA fantasy, you’re probably not worrying about contemporary teen speak but the voice of your younger characters most likely will differ from that of the story’s adults.

How do you get into your teen characters’ heads and find their voice? Do you write slang into your YA or avoid slang like the plague?

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