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:
- My hearing is ehhhh, so lately I’ve taken to repeating what I thought the person who was talking to me said. Sometimes it’s funny! Mostly it’s not. (“Oh, you said pork? I thought you said you were eating a pulled-park sandwich.”)
- I quote a variety of media I enjoy when given the opportunity. Usually I adapt them to the situation at hand. (PERSON: “You have to wait for it.” ME: “Actually, I’m willing to wait for it.” /// PERSON: “You’re such a—” ME: “Beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox. I know.” /// PERSON: “Tell me why.” ME: “I’M SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR ATTITUDE, FEELIN’ LIKE I DON’T KNOW YOU, YOU TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME THEN CUT ME DOWN. Sorry. I had to.”)
- Basic things, too—I interrupt myself with the word “like” all the time, and I also say it when I lose my train of thought (“So I was talking to him, and I said, like…shit, what did I say…?”)
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: