Most readers love dialogue, probably because it reveals something happening in “real time.” That is, the action is on the page, rather than being relayed by a narrator as having happened. Dialogue isn’t “having happened,” it’s happening. Right now, as the reader sees the words. Also, I suspect that some readers (I’m one of them) like dialogue because it helps a novel move faster. Unless, that is, the dialogue is dense, with single paragraphs taking up half a page of text or more. Most readers don’t find that kind of long-winded dialogue interesting.
I enjoy writing dialogue, but not for either of the reasons mentioned above. I enjoy writing it because it helps reveal character and helps reveal plot.
Some writers I know hate writing dialogue. It terrifies them. They would much rather write narration, where the action and conflict aren’t as immediate. I’ve always felt bad for such writers, because they’re missing such a great opportunity to make their stories come alive.
Writing dialogue comes natural to me, whether I’m writing a children’s book such as Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, or an adult novel such as She’s on First. I’m able to immerse myself in the story and in the character (including the character’s age and background) and write dialogue that fits.
But when it came to writing The F Words, my first YA novel, I had a moment’s pause, and that was because most of the dialogue would be spoken by teen characters. The natural cadence of current teen speak was easy to reproduce, because there’s nothing abnormal about it. It’s not as if Yoda were speaking in inverted sentences. But just to be sure, I made a point of listening to teens speak wherever I encountered them.
It wasn’t the cadence or pattern of current teen speak that worried me. It was what to do with slang expressions. Such expressions are always a problem because they often have a very short life span. So, for example, a book published in 2012 might, if it contained a lot of slang, sound dated by 2021.
I read a fair number of YA novels every year, and I notice that the adjective dope is used in most of them. As in That’s dope to refer to something that’s awesome. Although this is obviously a common slang term, one that may be a permanent part of our language for the next few decades, I shied away from using it — mainly because I read it so much in YA fiction that I’m just tired of it. So: dope wasn’t dope for me.
I like many current slang terms (lit, for example), but was hesitant to use them, for fear that in a few years they would date The F Words. And so, I followed the advice given in most writing workshops: keep the slang to a minimum, and, in this case, try to convey teen characters in other ways.
So that’s what I did in The F Words. I used a minimum number of slang terms, I had the teens speak as naturally as possible. I used short sentences (because teens assume they all have the same data base of knowledge and feelings and don’t need to elaborate on much).
And, I think this works. Especially because I used brevity to help demonstrate what kind of people the teens are: sure of what’s right and wrong, full of wit. Most of the conversations are quite brief, in the sense that each character speaks few words. That seems very teen-like to me.
Here’s an example:
“This is good,” says Felipe. “Gracias.”
“We can start taking photos now,”Treva suggests.
Felipe smiles at this and looks around for kids to pose with.
“Wait,” I say. “We need the word Familia on each photo.”
“I can do that,” says Treva. “I’ll add Familia in text over each JPEG.”
I shake my head. “I’m thinking of something with more… participation. Something warmer. Something that the other students can be doing.”
“Warm like me,” says Felipe, grinning.
“I can borrow a flame-thrower,”Treva says.
I really like her sense of humor.
Assuming she’s kidding.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.