Writing YA Dialogue That Rings True

black antlers against a white background
Category: Writing

S.T.A.G.S. is my first book for young adults, and one of the biggest challenges it presented was writing realistic dialogue for teens. I am not particularly young, so this could have presented a problem. Here are some of the things that helped me to overcome the thorny issue of my teenage years being well behind me…

Talk to your friendly neighbourhood teenager

If you don’t have teenage kids, talk to one in your family or community (without creeping them out)

I am lucky in this regard because I happen to be growing two Young Adults in my house. I relied on my son in particular to translate teen-speak for me, as he is very familiar with the latest slang. My kids also caught some of my mistakes – for instance I used the phrase ‘To give someone the cold shoulder’. I was informed that neither of them know what the heck that meant, and why didn’t I say ‘blanking’ instead. I was also told that ‘bloody’ as an expletive has almost completely fallen out of use among those who can’t remember Charles and Di’s wedding (what do you mean you don’t remember it?) If you don’t have teenage kids, talk to one in your family or community (without creeping them out). If teens are thin on the ground in your life, catch up with the latest teen shows. Be aware, though, that slang dates very quickly, so sometimes making up your own works best. 

Read other YA novels which you consider to have an authentic voice

The daddy of YA is John Green, and I love his voice. But, of course, it’s better to read quite widely so you don’t end up imitating anyone in particular. Much of Young Adult literature is written in the first person as it is a very immediate way to hook the reader in. I have a mind-blowing theory as to why this is. Are you ready?  Here it is. Much of social media, which is meat and drink to teens, is written in first person. I never write in my Twitter feed: M.A. Bennett had scrambled eggs for breakfast. I write I had scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Twitter brings me to my next top tip:

Get stuck into social media

Even though one of the main features of S.T.A.G.S. is that it contains almost no tech at all, it is peppered with social media references. Teens (or at least mine) watch YouTube more than they watch TV. Once more, though, be wary of the fact that there’s only one thing that dates faster than slang, and that’s social media. Between drafts one and two of S.T.A.G.S., I had to take out references to the ice bucket challenge (‘stale’, according to my son), and replace it with something else which is no doubt already out of date!

Plunder Pop Culture

Many YA novels reference pop culture

Many YA novels, unless they are in the fantasy genre like Hunger Games or Divergent, reference pop culture, from Game of Thrones to Gangnam-style. Such references also inevitably date, but that’s something you can use to your advantage. Using 80s references is the anchor of Stranger Things, for example, as it roots the show firmly in its period. Or you can get round the dating problem by using references from the past – the near past or the more distant past. In S.T.A.G.S., my heroine Greer is a film nut and I have her talk about lots of different films, from Room With A View (old) to Guardians of the Galaxy (new). Even though Guardians of the Galaxy will date too by the time the book comes out, it will still be a valid reference, and take its place in the pantheon of films, just in the slightly ‘older’ ones.  

Good luck! I mean… er…Safe, G!


For more hints and resources to help get your writing where you want it to be, check out our writing tips blogs.

M.A. Bennett

M.A. Bennett’s teen novel S.T.A.G.S is her first book for young adults and has been described as a ‘twisting thriller that’s part Get Out and part Battle Royale’.