The 7 Deadly Sins of Young Adult Dialogue

Yesterday morning, I taught a class at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference in one of my favorite subjects: dialogue.

I love me some dialogue. As an auditory learner, I tend to learn the most from listening. How people speak has a far greater impact on me than how they dress, for example, and I tend to form characters starting with their voices.

I like to teach dialogue by starting with a fun lesson about what NOT to do when writing dialogue for young adults. Here is the lesson I use. By all means feel free to use this in your own teaching, but if you do so, please credit me.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF Y.A. DIALOGUE

BY BILL KONIGSBERG

 Behold! These are the seven sins that will catapult your manuscript into the slush pile of oblivion for eternity. Practice not these sins, and your manuscript shall be saved!

The sins are:

-Overuse of Slang

-Movie Speak

-Backstorying

-On Topicide

-Oldstering

-Like-ness

-Plottishness

Examples of each of these sins and an explanation of the virtues you may choose instead, follow. Enjoy!

OVERUSE OF SLANG

From “A wingding to remember”* by Thomas Everdeen#

“Hey Man,” Chaz said. “Slap me five!”

“Far out!” Shaft enthused. “I can dig it!”

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

Replace the 70s speak with what the kids are saying now in your novel, and now you know exactly how kids 40 years from now will feel about your work. As ”Tubular” and “Not!” have taught us, the shelf life on popular lingo is short. Use slang in exceedingly small doses!

 MOVIE SPEAK

From “Say Everything”* by Holly Shapiroberg#

“Don’t you see, John? You’re everything to me. Without you, I don’t think I can … go on…”

“No, Elizabeth, don’t say that! Stay strong, baby! Stay strong!”

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

Life is not a soap opera or a movie. Be careful not to use television or movies as your auditory inspiration! That noise can get stuck in your head. Instead, go to coffee shops. Listen to how people actually speak to each other. Record some of it (secretly, of course, and don’t get caught), go home, and transcribe what you’ve recorded. No need to recreate actual dialogue, as actual speech is sometimes too disconnected from things like grammar and common sense. But better to veer on that side than on John Hughes’ side!

BACKSTORYING

From “It Happened Long Ago”* by Rafe Kumatsu#

“Hey Doris, remember the time we went to Café Simba, and you didn’t have enough money to pay for your hummus, and we ran out without paying?”

“Of course, John. That was two years ago, when I was 16 and you were 15. It was a year before your father died.”

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

TV sitcoms do this all the time, but actual people don’t. Sitcoms recap past events to tell the audience what they need to know, especially about things that have just happened off screen. But in real life, Doris and John don’t need to recap, because they were there, and they know what they know. Better would be:

“Hey, remember Café Simba?”

“I remember bone crushing shame. I couldn’t sleep for a week thinking about that poor waitress.”

Notice that in this example, they harken back to an event they shared using the fewest words possible, as people are wont to do. Also notice that people don’t always say each other’s names. It’s rare, actually, to say a person’s name while talking to them.

ON TOPICIDE

From “I Mean It”* by Charlie Heston#

“I like you and I want to go out on a date with you,” Joseph said.

“Well thank you for the offer. I admit I’m taken aback but also intrigued. I don’t know you terribly well yet, but you seem interesting enough and I find you reasonably attractive. Perhaps one date, where we can get to know each other, might be a good idea,” said Sylvia.

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

This would only happen in an insane asylum. People occasionally say exactly what they mean, but those moments are made meaningful by the fact that most often people color their words based on: Fear, discomfort, audience, what they want the other person to think of them, what they want the other person to do, who else might be listening, any number of factors. Better might be:

“So what’s going on this weekend?” Joseph asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Sylvia said, crossing her arms in front of her chest and then uncrossing them. “I’m probably just studying mostly. What about you?”

Notice also that in this example, the author puts some of Sylvia’s reaction in her physicality. This is a useful tool, though you will want to vary the ways you use physicality to show what a person is feeling. It’ll get old (and a little insane-seeming) if a person is constantly rolling their eyes or crossing and then uncrossing their arms.

OLDSTERING

From “The Way We Live Now”* by Elizabeth Rutkowski#

“Those hooligans made off with our Rod Stewart album,” Sheena said.

“I believe that traversed the street and proceeded cattywampus down Carriage Lane,” said Ralph.

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

Retro may be in, but it would be an extremely unusual teen who had a Rod Stewart album. In fact, the truth is that Sheena and Ralph might be teens who are extremely affected and trying hard to speak and behave in a certain way. Because otherwise, teens generally don’t say hooligans or cattywampus. My other half does, and he is 52.

Beyond this, while it’s fine to have your teen characters be very mature for their age, remember that they are still teens. Give them their youth! Let them enjoy their waging hormones, shorter attention spans, and economy of words. John Green already exists; you won’t be the first author to push the edge of precociousness with your highly advanced teens, so be careful!

LIKE-NESS

From “Gag Me With a Spoon”* by Valencia Haverspoon

“I’m like, you know, like, how would I like even like know what he was like saying?”

“I’m like totally with you, Cassandra. Like seriously.”

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

Sadly, this line of dialogue could actually happen. Go record people speaking to each other! You’ll be horrified. Nonetheless, we can clean things up a little. Rule: You are allowed one “Like” for every 15 pages of your novel. Pepper it into dialogue for the sake of reality, in ways that readers will barely notice. Same goes for “You know” and “Um.”

PLOTTISHNESS

From “Watch Out for that Truck!”* by Patrice Wild#

“Careful! Spot just ran out into the street!” Jody yelled.

“Look out, Spot! Oh no! A truck just ran over our dog!” Marcus screamed.

*not an actual novel

#not an actual author

In life, as in books, events are not recorded in dialogue. If they are, they are recorded in more realistic ways.

“Careful!” Jody yelled.

“No!” Marcus screamed as the truck roared toward their dog.

In moments of great tragedy, people rarely have more words than that. Better to allow your descriptive powers to lead the way here.

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