Five Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue in Young Adult Fiction, by Lori Ann Palma

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In the coming weeks, Lindsay and Lori Ann will be sharing their favorite posts from the past. This post originally appeared in March 2015.


Most writers will tell you that good fiction is all about the show, not about the tell. Dialogue is one of the most important “showing” tools in a writer’s toolbox, but when it comes to writing exciting and believable dialogue in your YA fiction, an additional challenge presents itself.

Most of us YA writers are quite a few years beyond being a teenager, and even if we vividly remember those horrible high school memories or occasionally page through our angst-ridden diary, channeling a teenage voice isn’t always so easy. Our perspective and language have evolved with age, which is why new writers often create conversations with how they think teenagers speak instead of how they actually do. But when writing for the smart, passionate YA audience, sounding like you’re their age is the key to luring them into your fictional world.

So, how do we write YA dialogue that makes readers fly through the pages? In addition to reading a lot of YA fiction, consider these tips:

Turn on Those Captions: Since the boom of YA fiction, many books have been adapted for television and film (Pretty Little Liars; The Fault in Our Stars; and Divergent are only a few major examples from recent years). When I’m struggling with dialogue between my characters, I turn on the captioning/subtitles for these shows and movies. Instantly, I have the ability to not only read what the characters are saying, but also hear how they say it. The beauty of captions is that they allow you to make the connection between the words and the natural way they are spoken, providing a litmus for your own YA dialogue. Ask yourself: Is my protagonist too formal and adult? Do all of my YA characters speak in full sentences? Do they use any slang that I can apply? If you have love for a particular YA show or movie where the dialogue exchanges keep you riveted to your seat, then turn on those captions, listen, and soak it in.

Eavesdrop on Strangers: If you are more adventurous and want to hear how teenagers speak in their natural habitat, trying eavesdropping. What you’re listening for isn’t the subject matter, but how it is exchanged. Teenagers (and people in general) use verbal shorthand that isn’t always captured when you write. As an example, we often don’t speak formally, such as, “Do you remember when we used to play hide and seek as children?” More likely, the statement would be something like, “’Member playing hide and seek when we were little?” It’s a slight difference, but it adds another level of reality to your writing. These shorthand techniques show your character’s age and reveal emotions. Clipped one word answers might demonstrate anger, or maybe show the deep connection between best friends who don’t need a lot of talk. Listen to the inflections and the shorthand and you’ll begin to feel the pattern of speech. One caveat on eavesdropping—be courteous and try not to look creepy. These are teenagers, after all! Try a place where you can “read” something without too much notice. If you can, also glance at how they are standing and facial expressions. It might provide you with some additional inspiration for your scene.

Make Friends With a Teacher: Teachers, librarians, and other school personnel are at the forefront of the teenager world, and they are invaluable in explaining the latest jargon or giving examples of how real teenagers speak. I’m lucky enough to be married to a high school teacher who comes home with a bounty of new words on a weekly basis. Someone who can tell you the slang that’s “in” or “out” will be an important resource for your writing. You may even enlist this person (if you trust them) to read some of your dialogue and let you know if it sounds and feels like it came from a young adult. Half of their lives are surrounded by your target audience, so use their expertise!

Do Some Math: As you develop your YA characters, calculate the year they were born and write it down. As adults writing for YA, we have to keep in mind that their scope of history is different from ours. For example, kids entering high school next year were likely born in 2002 or 2003, so their experience of 9/11 is from news clips and stories. A character who is extremely young or who has not lived through a historic event will talk about it differently. This time challenge also applies to pop culture references—my idea of classic rock is Led Zeppelin, but for today’s young adults, classic rock is Nirvana. The difference may not seem like much, but it does create authenticity in your YA character’s world.

Read It Out Loud: I know this is likely one of the most uncomfortable things you might try, but it works. If you’re not sure how your dialogue flows, then ask a (caring, non-judgmental) friend to help you act it out. If you know a teenager who won’t laugh you out of the room, even better! No props or performance skills are required, only a clear voice that reads the words exactly as they are on the page. As you cringe (and you will), listen for the places where the dialogue stumbles. Your voice knows when you’re reading versus how you truly speak, and automatically tries to correct it. These blunders may include too much formality (cannot instead of can’t), or overuse of melodrama. If any part of it doesn’t feel right, then keep revising.

All of these tips aim to help you write YA dialogue that is honest without being boring.

What tried and true methods do you like to use for writing realistic YA dialogue? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

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