I, a teen, have feelings about how you, an adult, write teen dialogue

This is something I struggle with personally. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at it over time, especially since I’ve started to consider dialogue one of my stronger spots. So let’s just jump right into some specific things I find that need fixing or more visibility:

(Actually, first, please note: I am anticipating getting responses from teenagers saying they speak exclusively in extended metaphors. That doesn’t discount the points made here—and moreover, I super doubt anyone who says that, to be frank. I’ve met hundreds of teenagers—because, you know, school—and I’m still waiting to meet the one who uses all of these. I don’t want to meet them, actually, because it seems talking with them would be incredibly, incredibly painful.)

1. We don’t speak in overwritten sentences.

This is so stupidly common it makes me want to punch myself in the face. I’m not going to name names because I’m an incredibly professional businessperson businessing away, but there’s a certain YA author who had a great deal of commercial success in the past few years. I like his books. I also happen to think he’s yet to meet a teenager.

Ridiculous thing you might write: “My god, look at it! How big, how blue, how beautiful—look at the water undulating hither and tither, excited and repulsed by the moon in turn. What a feeling clamoring about in my chest, begging to escape! Given years and all the time I could want, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than here with you, Hope Feather Waters-Stone.”

Actual thing a teen might say: “Holy shit. Wait—holy shit, is the beach always that pretty? And I didn’t expect the noise from the waves or whatever…oh my god, that’s amazing.”

Why: Let’s count: the vast, vast, vast vast vast majority of teens would not use personification (of the ocean water and the feeling in his chest), fancy verbs (“undulating,” “repulsed,” “clamoring”), or a person’s full name in casual conversation. You might say, “But I’m not writing for the vast majority of teens!” and if that’s true, I’ve got some bad news for you concerning commercial publishing.

2. We aren’t pretty and refined.

This is kind of a catch-all for a few things: one, we curse. A lot. We do not restrict our fuck and shit usage to the maximum in a PG-13 movie. I read a book recently where the main character didn’t curse, only started cursing and then censored himself (“Eff this!”). If I met a sixteen-year-old boy who did that, I would be concerned. I would maybe call the authorities. I don’t know why; it’d just instill panic in my heart.

And I know a lot of writers are Mormon, which is fine! Great, even! I know a lot of great LDS people (their church’s recent “children with same-sex parents are now apostates” thing notwithstanding). But most teens do not morally object to curse words. If you, Adult Person, do, that’s your prerogative, but when your non-Mormon character faces extreme suffering or frustration, they’re not going to pull a Kimmy Schmidt and say “Gosh darn mommy-fudger!” That’s not a thing.

Moreover, we talk about or reference a lot of things that might upset adults in general. We talk about sex (I cannot even type that without my mind going to “Let’s Talk About Sex”), drinking, drugs, human anatomy, body humor…a lot of us are gross people, oftentimes. Sometimes we talk about these things because they’re funny—a running gag in my friend group for the past two years has been the full sentence “Fuck you, pussy-ass motherfucker.” Sometimes we talk about these things because they’re new—sex, notably. Sometimes we talk about these things because we like them—drinking (NOT ME; CALM DOWN). Almost always, we use the words.

Ridiculous thing you might write: “What’d you do this weekend?”

Hope Feather Waters-Stone smiled. “I sat home and twiddled my thumbs. That’s not a metaphor for masturbation. I would never. Golly, who would?”

“You’re a fudging inspiration.”

Actual thing a teen might say: “Oh my god I hooked up with so many people this weekend you are not going to believe it.

3. We’re quirky, dammit.

Everyone has verbal tics except for teenage characters in young adult fiction! Who knew.

These vary widely, so I can only speak from experience. Here’s some I’ve noticed in myself:

4. Grammar.

I don’t use it when speaking to friends. My friends don’t use it when speaking to me. We’ll put a well-developed paragraph of events, thoughts, or feelings into a single sentence when speaking to each other. Conversely, we’ll give one-word answers, often even when we’re not angry. We’re not writing an essay; we’re having a face-to-face conversation with a friend of seven years. We do! Not! Care!

5. We’re not often quotable.

Sometimes we are! Key word: sometimes. But if a character gets more than one or two beautiful, paragraph-length quotes you, the reader, just want to put on Goodreads because they’re so beautiful and heart-wrenching and utterly poetic even without substantial context—well, I call bullshit. A lot of people notice when characters are written as intentionally quotable. A lot of people don’t like it.

6. We have back-and-forth more often than you seem to think.

A pet peeve of mine is the rallying cry in fiction. Teens—and, you know, people—do not speak in fifteen straight compound-complex sentences. We stumble over our words. We lose trains of thought. We are also interrupted—our friends or whoever we’re speaking to jump in with their thoughts or a rebuttal, and that’s okay! We likely do the same to them! Conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. And it’s pretty much never a soliloquy.


I asked my teen followers on Twitter what they dislike about YA dialogue. Here are the replies I got:

Join the Conversation


  1. YEEEEESSSS TO THIS. (Hi, I’m in my thirties and wouldn’t just chat with my friends the way some of these “teens” do. Which reminds me: I was the same age as the teens on Dawson’s Creek while the show was on & we spent every Tuesday laughing at their over-the-top word choices.)


    1. Yeah, I’m all for depicting intelligent teens, but…I mean, those aren’t intelligent teens; those are philosophy professors who have spent literal decades honing their craft and their rhetoric. Doesn’t really happen with teenagers in real life! (Also, not to make you upset or existential or anything, but I recognize but don’t get that reference because I was kind of a little bit six years old when Dawson’s Creek ended. FORGIVE ME)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this, you are so right about everything!!!!!!!!!!! It gives off the wrong impression and ideals – I’m twenty years old and had I read YA extensively around the age of 14-17 I know that I would feel like I wasn’t smart enough and witty and educated enough just like the characters in, say, John Green novels. I absolutely hate this notion of making teens quotable. It’s so unbelievable and a very harmful thing, regarding that a huge chunk of the people who read YA are actual teens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree (and thank you so much)! It sets a sort of unrealistic bar of intelligence. The wise teenager isn’t really a thing in real life—in my experience, we’re more often SUPER smart about a few specific interests (football, biology, maybe literature), but we’re not experts on everything else. How could we be? We haven’t had the time yet. That’s not a bad thing in any way, either. The sixteen-year-olds who are philosophy experts despite recently getting their first facial hair and still being protected by child labor laws need to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sadly I am not a teen but I do work with them, and I am often unconvinced that writers have ever spoken to a teenager. Reading this makes me feel it is internationlly renowned authors who are wrong, not me, and that’s very reassuring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’ve found often they’re good writers, but not authentic ones—they portray the world how they see it, which is sometimes skewed toward the pretty where it’s not in the real world.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Terrific post! Just a reminder that there are names of all ethnicities out there, not just Amandas and Mikes. :o)


    1. Thank you SO much for this—I really appreciate this comment, holy cow. I goofed. The intent behind that statement was that white writers currently dominate mainstream YA and they usually write about WASP-y kids, a lot of whom are named various things I consider unrealistic. That said, I oversimplified it a whole damn lot where I shouldn’t have because of my annoyance, and it turned into exclusion. I’m going to edit that sentence—I don’t want that on my blog. Thank you again!


  5. Yes to this so hard! I want to stand up and start a slow clap, but I’m the only one in the room. I don’t read YA, but I notice the same thing so much in NA and contemporary romance, which is what I mostly read in terms of fiction.

    I think overall, dialogue in books is never actually as casual and conversational as the “IRL” version of that character would be. I majored in English, am a professional copywriter, and feel like I’m a pretty “adulty” adult for a 25yo, and even I use “me and _______,” commit many other grammar atrocities, and use slang when I’m talking. Verbal and written words are very different beasts, and I think most authors write dialogue with the written word more in mind. To an extent, I kindaaaa understand, but I still don’t like it. It makes me hate almost every audiobook.

    Also, off-topic, I was Kimmy Schmidt for Halloween and next up on my TBR is “Pawnee: The Greatest City in America.” Guess how I felt about your pop culture references? 😛


    1. I was going to reply to this with something coherent and thoughtful but then I got to your last paragraph and I DIDN’T KNOW LESLIE’S BOOK IS AN ACTUAL BOOK BUT I LOOKED IT UP AND IT IS AND EVERYTHING IS SO BEAUTIFUL


  6. Wonderful post, and I agree so much! I don’t think it’s restricted to teens alone, adults do not spout quotable monologues at every turn, either.
    I agree with Emily SO much with the chat speak, it actually takes so much effort to time l1k3 th1S I don’t know ANYONE in real life that actually does it. Please, stop with the chat/text lingo in books.


    1. Thank you! And no, it isn’t at all restricted to adults—that said, I’ve found that issue more prevalent in YA, but then I mostly read YA, so. 🙂 And YES, the ridiculous texting needs to go.


  7. I want to hug you so hard for writing this! I’m in my 30s and relatively intelligent (or so I tell myself) and some of the teens in YA books use words I don’t even use. Words I have never in my life used. And sure as hell don’t hear teens at school using–not even the smartest, most ambitious, most literary of the bunch (unless they are writing papers, not talking to peers).

    But I do get why authors cut out all the “uh” and “um…” and “well,” because it isn’t exactly fun to read all the extraneous stuff people of all ages say while they are simultaneously gathering thoughts and speaking.


    1. Hey, thank you! I agree with your last point—but at the same time, it can be a (fairly simple, but effective) technique for characterization, I think. I have a character who stutters or mumbles when asked direct questions, which is admittedly straightforward. But it’s also a way to show his anxiety, especially since it’s more pronounced around certain people (i.e. his love interest). If authors use those extraneous things in that way, I think it can be very much effective.


  8. THANK YOU for this post. Seriously. I’ve been blogging about the dialogue in YA for years. Frankly if more writers used contractions in their dialogue it’d make me feel worlds better, too. I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve read that have dialogue like “I can not do it, Charlie. I simply can not.” Drives me nuts!

    And all the points you have here are spectacular too!


    1. So glad you liked it, Hannah! COMPLETELY agree–the lack of contractions is most often a problem in fantasy, I think, and it’s infuriating. People say “don’t” even if there’s magic or dragons!


  9. As a teenager myself, I have to agree with all of these points–except for the cursing one, I suppose. Some of us just don’t curse because we’re either a) religious b) often around people who are religious/sensitive or c) just not in an environment that curses a lot. Other than that, it’s all true–sorry, John Green, but although I love your stories, none of your characters seem like teenagers to me. :/


    1. Hey, thanks, Kimberly! So what I meant by that is, you know, a whole lot of teens do curse–so, so many don’t fall into those categories. I don’t know numbers, but there are a buuuunch of nonreligious people and probably just as many who are in religious homes but who curse anyway because it’s not a big deal in their faith and their family. I think that’s a safe bet. There’s always going to be outliers or just groups of people who don’t agree when I write posts like these–which is fine! But I don’t think that changes the validity of the point. (And yes, I’m with you on John Green; he can write like nobody’s business, but I don’t believe for a second those characters are seventeen.)


      1. Right–and I didn’t mean to imply that your point was invalid. You’re talking about the kind of novels where teens aren’t living in language-conscious environments; it’s *pretty* weird when non-religious, non-conservative teens with literally no reason not to swear just… don’t. I was only commenting that yeah, you’ll find the occasional teen in the wild who doesn’t curse. 🙂


  10. Mark, you have opened up more of a discussion with this fantastic post than you know. One of my critique group buddies shared it because we are the adults you refer to. Two problems for me. Like Kimberly, I don’t swear and never have. Ugh. Yes, unrealistic, but it’s not my fault. The second problem is that those of us who have to subject ourselves to submitting our novels and short stories to agents and editors have to run the gauntlet of the publishing gatekeepers who want a fine polish on everything. Sometimes things slip through that are completely street talk and whatever, but mostly those who hold the keys expect otherwise. Your post has just been put on FaceBook where we hope agents and editors who have the power over YA will see it. Thank you for this!


  11. Hi, Mark. It sounds like you’re arguing for naturalism in dialogue, and taking to task adult YA authors who romanticize childhood and adolescence to the extent that they write idealized dialogue for idealized teen characters. Sound about right?


  12. Oh, god, the Extended Full Name Every Single Time thing drives me bananas. Why is this so common in YA books? Did Green start this, or did he just finish it? I have never once felt compelled to refer to one of my friends by ANN CHRISTINE ISABEL CLARK HOW ARE YOU.


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