Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dialogue 101: Your Official, Foolproof Beginner's Guide to Writing Awesome YA Dialogue

Back when I was formulating the Dialogue 101 series, I asked the Interwebs what they found most difficult about writing dialogue. Overwhelmingly, the majority of responders were YA-writing adults who said they couldn't nail that elusive teenage voice.

Well, here's a fact.

Teenagers are as diverse in the way they talk as adults.

Does that make you feel better? Yay! Okay, moving forward.

To make this easier, we're going to format this Official, Foolproof Beginner's Guide (which probably isn't foolproof and is definitely not official) into a list of do's and don't's. Because why not. But understand, referring to the aforementioned fact, that not all do's and don't's are going to apply to all teenagers.

DO have your YA characters say things that are off the wall. Teens tend to put less thought into what they say. They will do and say things off of emotion.

DON'T chock your dialogue full of snarky banter. Sure, teens banter and back-and-forth and throw attempts at one-liners, but not every other sentence. They do like to be serious sometimes. Too much of this makes your characters look constantly angry and standoffish, instead of relatable.

DO let your YA characters exaggerate. Drastic exaggeration is rabid among teenagers.

DON'T drown your dialogue with foul language. It depends on their circles, but teens as a general group don't swear/use slang as much as some YA novels like to think. Really. It ultimately depends on their social circles. In fact, some teens will flat out tell their friends to tone down their vulgarity.

DO allow your teen characters to have serious conversations with each other, specifically best friend to best friend. Teens like to debate serious topics sometimes, too, or topics they consider serious.

DON'T let your YA characters sound like middle-aged adults. Some popular YA contemporary novels have unfortunately fallen into this trap.

DO interact with or around teenagers. This is the best way to learn what they sound like.

DON'T overdose your characters' dialogue and attitudes with general disrespect towards adults, each other, and life. Not all teens are as rebellious as culture likes to advertise.

DO use pop culture references according to your genre and setting. In our day and age, and in those gone by, teens constantly quoted films, books, songs, etc, and tossed around references accordingly. There's a trend against this in the publishing industry, for fear of excluding readers from inside jokes, so handle accordingly, but keep in mind that this is a fundamental piece of teendom and childhood. Whether it's the Victorian "Ta-ra-ra BOOM-dee-ay," the 20's schoolboy "Lloyd George Knew My Father," Lord of the Rings jokes, or our day's Baymax fistbump, there's always been a big place for pop culture references among teens and preteens.

DON'T forget that, if you're using a pre-Victorian setting, whether it be Medieval or Regency or Aztec, that the concept of "teenager" was next to nonexistent. Teens were either adults or children, dependent on their society, and were treated as such.

Also, for those with a modern setting, here are words teenagers tend to overuse:


So (often combined with like at the beginning of sentences into "So, like...")

Awesome (awesome is the new cool. "Oh, awesome.")

Die ("I'm dying," "I basically died.")

Same (often in response to a statement about one's self. "I love coffee." "Same!")

Right (frequently combined with "I know." "I know, right?")


Kill ("You're killing me!" "I'd kill to see that movie." "That exam killed me."


Even ("What even?" "I can't even.")



Words that Entertainment World thinks teenagers use a lot, when they actually don't use them as much as thought:






Teenagers also tend to use a lot of adverbs in their dialogue, such as "totally," "perfectly," "entirely," "absolutely," etc.

There you go! A good place to start. I might write a sequel post if this proves helpful and I come up with more.

What are some ways you keep your YA dialogue legit? :D


  1. heh. apparently i talk like a modern day teen, so i should be good :D

  2. Thanks a lot, Rachel. I'll put some of these words in my dialogues. I did notice that many young people use the word Awesome frequently.

  3. just wrote how I talk. I mean Really. Also Pop-Culture refs(if you're a Percy Jackson fan jus think The Hover Dam...)

  4. Also, "literally" used as a quantifier...

    Good point about pop culture references; I wasn't fully aware of this, but it's so true. Speaking from personal experience: there are also teenagers who are out of the loop where contemporarily popular pop culture references are concerned. It doesn't mean they don't use and cling to pop culture references, though; it just means most other teenagers don't get theirs, so they may not use them in dialogue as much as e.g. think them.

    Teenagers also tend to see in black and white, "us vs them" terms (not necessarily in those words) - which, I think, is part of the process of finding one's own footing in the world and where the impression of teenage rebellion stems from. It doesn't have to demonstrate in rebellion against authority figures, as you rightly notice; if the teenager comes to identify with them, it can be e.g. "us" as in "my family" vs "them" as in "people who do things differently than I'm used to". And it can just as easily demonstrate in forming interest groups among one's peers.
    In dialogue, this often shows in generalisations, and the rebelion comes into play if it's negative generalisations about authority figures - but it may just seem that way from an adult, "shades of grey" position.