CS Lewis once quipped that, “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” Novels with teenage characters are a great example of this principle. Writing dialogue for teen characters is hard. New words, phrases, and expressions shuffle in and out of their speech so fast that it’s impossible to get it right for long.
There are two approaches novelists can take in response. The first is trying to capture teen slang in as up-to-the-minute detail as possible. Tana French’s 2014 novel The Secret Place takes that approach.
The Secret Place is a detective novel with literary aspirations. It centers around a murder at an all-girls school outside Dublin. The girls’ speech is, to put it mildly, distinctive. Here are some actual lines of dialogue:
“Not even. I mean, maybe, but no? Like, they could’ve just made it up … They’re, ohmyGod, so weird . . . Well, they used to be OK, like ages ago. Now we’re just like, ‘Whatever,’ you know?”
“[S]he thought she was totes amazeballs because she’d caught someone who was in OMG college, but of course he dumped her the second he found out how old she actually was.”
“OhmyGod, here, have some more duh. They can say whatever they want.”
“[Y]ou actually do the blood-sisters thing? Because that would be so totes adorbs I could just die.”
“But, I mean, she just said it. Straight out. All the guys were like ‘OMG, ew! Way TMI!’ . . . See what I mean? They act like they can say anything they want. None of them have boyfriends–duh, surprise?”
French obviously worked hard to capture the precise language of Dublin teens in 2014. But the problems with her approach outweigh the accomplishment.
Using so much slang is a cheap way to make the dialogue feel “authentic” without digging deeper. The important thing about French’s teenage characters should be their desires, motivations, and values—not the fact that they say “totes adorbs.” French does have interesting things to say about teenage friendship. Or at least, she would if she didn’t distract readers with all the jargon.
Also, this dialogue has aged terribly. I’m a 31 year old nerd, and even I know that teens don’t say things like “totes amazeballs” anymore. A mere four years after publication, it’s already embarrassingly dated.
Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel The Interestings takes the opposite approach. Its opening scene is a conversation between a group of teens at an arts camp during the summer of 1974. I’m sure that teens in the 1970s had just as much slang as teens from any other period. But you’d never know it from the book.
For instance, one of the boys loves the phrase “diametrically opposed.” This isn’t a slang term, but it’s perfect for the character: a clever, precocious teen who wants his friends to think he’s profound. It’s the sort of thing I used to say as a teenager.
Perhaps the best dialogue, though, is from a character named Ethan. He’s the group’s most talented artist, and has been nervously explaining his cartoon creation to a girl he has a crush on. After a long description, he says:
“Oh, and did I say that the cartoon is funny? It’s a comedy. Or it’s supposed to be, anyway. You get the idea, I think. Or maybe you don’t . . . I don’t even know why I want to show it to you, but I do, and there it is . . . It just occurred to me in the teepee tonight that there was a slight possibility that you and I had something in common. You know, a sensibility. And that maybe you might like this. But I’m warning you that you might also really, really hate it. Anyway, be honest. Sort of.”
When I finished reading that passage, I thought about how perfectly Wolitzer captured what it was like to be a teenager. And she did it without a word of slang or up-to-date jargon.
The lesson for writers should be obvious. Focusing on the latest slang creates dialogue that feels dated the instant it’s published. But focusing on the timeless aspects of being a teenager creates dialogue that will remain authentic for decades to come. The best way to make it fresh is to stop worrying about making it up-to-date.
“Speech Bubbles” by Philippe Parreno (1997)
Photo by Looking 4 Poetry