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Agent Joanna Volpe On: Why Realistic Teen Dialogue Isn’t Necessarily a Good Thing (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

Categories: Children's Writing, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns.

Editor’s note: I am declaring November 2010 to be “Agent Guest Column Month,” and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 7: Today’s guest agent is Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary.

—————


If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them. Any questions? When it comes to writing YA, everyone focuses on voice. And they’re right. Voice is so, so important to pin down. And when trying to nail down that voice, there is a ton of advice out there on realistic teen dialogue:

  • Sit in a coffee shop or mall and eavesdrop on teens
  • Ask your daughter/son/niece/neighbor/students what lingo is hot these days
  • Watch teen TV shows or movies


     


Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is an agent
with Nancy Coffey Literary. She is giving
away a free copy of The DUFF (a new YA
novel by her client, Kody Keplinger) to
one random, lucky commenter here.
Update: Jo picked a winner on 11-17-10.
It’s Katherine R. — Congrats!

 

Of course, these are good techniques for getting the sensibility of teens today, but do they lead to good dialogue? The answer is no. What works in an acted out scene doesn’t always translate well to the written word. If I were to write a scene with truly realistic teen dialog, it would go something like this:

“Hey Sara, what’s up?”
“Not much, you?”
“Not much,” I say as I BBM Michael. “I so hate Michael right now.”
“Ya,” Sara agrees. “Me, too.”
“I mean, he’s like, SUCH a jerk.”
“I knooooow,” Sara nods. “Totally.”
“Ugh,” I groan. Michael hasn’t answered. “I just hate him!”

And so on.

This would take 6-7 seconds if it were acted out. But reading it feels like 6 or 7 minutes. Ugh. Snore-fest, anyone? But this is reality. Which is why I’m here to tell you not to write realistic dialogue. Before you get angry and curse my name for throwing all of your research on YA voice into a tizzy, let me explain.

Listening to teens is equally as important as nailing that voice. By listening, you start to pick up on what they care about and how they react toward one another and why they say the things they say. Then you have to take all of that valuable research and incorporate it into a scene with heightened tension and conflict. You have to dramatize it. Make it interesting. Turn it into a story. And as long as you’ve been paying attention, the YA voice will come.

The quickest way to get an agent’s attention
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Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed.

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40 Responses to Agent Joanna Volpe On: Why Realistic Teen Dialogue Isn’t Necessarily a Good Thing (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

  1. Molly_Elliott says:

    Thank you Joanna! I totally agree. But, I would like to also note that YA writer have to realize that teens desire to be viewed as adults. Writer must avoid, at all costs, writing down to teens. The YA audience has a zero tolerance policy for corny or lame. Also, they are starting to wonder why all the fiction offered to them is so dark considering the high suicide rate among their age group.

  2. Erica Olson says:

    I’ve critiqued some work that had dialogue like this – I think sometimes it’s a result of trying to meet minimum word counts (good to remember during NaNo month!). And I have 3 nephews age 19, 18, and 16. When they’re all together, there’s no dialogue – they’re each on their phones, texting other people!

  3. Susan Boucher says:

    Having just finished my first YA manuscript (which my teenage daughter is vetting for me), I chose a dual approach: The dialogue is in teen talk, although with lots of ums, likes and wells, omitted for readability. But, for the first-person narrative, I let my protagonist branch out a little and speak like the intelligent girl she is. I remember self-editing my own conversations in high school, using big or small words depending on the audience, and choosing nuances and affectations based on the person I was speaking to. Hopefully that will work in fiction?

  4. Margay says:

    I think I am lucky in that I have a couple of teenagers at home – and one has even agreed to read my stories and make sure I write like a teen!

    Margay

  5. Here’s a section of dialogue between two kids, John Henry and Frankie from Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding:

    "What do you want to do?" asked Frankie. "Would you like for me to read to you out of Hans Brinker or would you rather do something else?"
    "I’d rather do something else," he said.
    "What?"
    "Less play out."
    "I don’t want to," Frankie said.
    "There’s a big crowd going to play out tonight."
    "You got ears," Frankie said. "You heard me."
    …"I think I better go home."

    This is more or less realistic ramble, but the story is carried along through the emotional tension between the two characters. There are so many things we know the characters want to say, but are not. Carson McCullers wrote wonderful kid-dialogue.

    Teens and children have a shorthand way of speaking and telling stories, often because they cannot articulate themselves and their ideas are not fully formed. And just like Joanna was saying, if you write exactly what you hear, it’s really hard to keep it from sounding like a snooze fest. As writers, sometimes we try to get around this by elevating our teen characters’ language to that of adults, justifying our actions with: well, she’s an only child, he’s a boy genius. So how do we make them sound like a true teen? Teens have lingo! I’m fairly young, my fiance, much older. He’s always surprised by the words me and my friends use, ie. random…"Did you see Jane dancing with that random last night?" Every generation has a way of talking, and you’ve got to find those special words that make your character a believable 15 even if he tells stories like a 30 yr old.

  6. SAMoran says:

    I had the great advantage of being a junior high teacher, however, as hard as I tried I couldn’t nail down all the lingo that students use. I am however learning to pick up the odd sayings from facebook etc. and of course I have the attitude down pat that goes along with YA. I am writing my second YA presently and have found it helpful to review my notes on some conversations I’ve heard when trucking students around on sport meets. So I agree, hearing it and making it sound realistic are two different things. {Of course, deleting a lot of expletives is also a challenge as that’s part of the culture in my neck of the woods} Thanks for bringing this topic up.

  7. Joanna Volpe says:

    To answer this question:

    The only question I have on this is whether or not it’s okay to have one character speak like that, to help establish his/her personality…provided s/he was conversing with someone who spoke "better", so that it wasn’t monotonous. Is it still frowned upon even then?

    Thank you for this post, Joanna.
    Alyx Morgan

    It’s not HOW they speak per say, but how long that conversation went on. It definitely works to have a character that uses "like" and even "ya" and "I knoooooow" but you don’t want to over do it. Just like with dialect (ie – ya’ll, darlin’, hangin’ ’round here), you want to use it, but only just enough to establish and re-establish the voice.

    Hope that helps?

  8. Laura says:

    The DUFF should resonate with anyone who’s had a cringe-worthy high school experience (hello everyone) … and I’d love to win a copy! The tips on dialogue are dead-on accurate — try to fake it and readers will call you on it, every time.

  9. Narda says:

    I’d love to win a copy of The Duff. Teen dialogue only needs a touch for the reader to get the idea that teens are talking. But good dialogue engages the reader no matter who is talking. I like to think of it as a play, the word play, the emotion, and lastly what they are actually saying.

  10. Michael G-G says:

    Though choosing a DUFF-winner may be random, writing dialogue should be anything but.

    Thanks for "agent-a-day" November, Chuck. It’s all good stuff.

  11. girlgeum says:

    The dialogue seems to have a movie/TV show feel. It comes across as words you want to hear in a movie/TV show rather than read in a book.

  12. jpetroroy says:

    Nice tips. There really are so many mundane moments in daily conversation.

  13. Natalie Aguirre says:

    Great post. I drive my 13 year old daughter and her 2 friends (both guys) to swim practice everyday. I’ll have to discreetly pay more attention to them to see how they react to each other. I’d love to win a copy of THE DUFF.

  14. Shari Green says:

    "…what they care about and how they react toward one another and why they say the things they say" — YES! It’s what’s behind the words that’s really important, that really tells us what we need to know when we’re trying to create authentic YA voice.

    Thanks for posting! :)

  15. Dawn says:

    Actually, my fave examples of great dialogue is Kevin Smith movies such as CHASING AMY and CLERKS or John Green’s books such as SEARCHING FOR ALASKA and AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. Smooth, well-flowing, quirky and totally believable (without all the "um"s "uh"s and "like"s).

  16. Alyx Morgan says:

    The only question I have on this is whether or not it’s okay to have one character speak like that, to help establish his/her personality…provided s/he was conversing with someone who spoke "better", so that it wasn’t monotonous. Is it still frowned upon even then?

    Thank you for this post, Joanna.

  17. But nothing can be better than the teen talk from the 80’s. Can you imagine that in book–grody to the max, man. But it was–like actually– like totally trippindicular and so awesome, dudes!

  18. P. Cahlon says:

    Great advice. I noticed this when I was analyzing Green’s Looking for Alaska – teens can be mature verbally, and still learning to deal with their emotions. Looking forward to reading The Duff, though, win or no!

  19. I felt like I was listening to my freshmen as I read that bit of dialogue. Ugh.
    Excellent advice, Joanna. Thanks!
    PS – love, love, love The DUFF! Kody is a-mazing.

  20. Oh my god, like, I know! People talk sooooo boring in real life, right? *tilts head*

  21. I guess that’s the trick with everything we write: make it just like real life, only with all the boring bits taken out :P

    I’ve heard nothing but good about The Duff. Even if I don’t win, I have to read that book.

  22. This was a very good post. Thanks! I have been struggling with knowing how realistic I should get with my characters and personally have always hated listening to the ‘small talk’ teens take part in. I could do without any more ‘likes’ in my life. So, thank you for helping me clear through the rubble and find what I should be focusing on.

    And YES, I would love to have DUFF!

  23. Alicia says:

    Pick me! Pick me! I just read a review about The Duff and can’t wait to read it. So pick me, pick me!

  24. Understanding teens, their needs, wants, and desires, is key when trying to nail the YA voice. Great post!

  25. Hmm… my comment didn’t go through last time.

    Anyway, I think this is such a great post that can be applied to other genres aside from YA.

  26. JoAnna says:

    Great tips! My husband is a high school teacher, and whenever I’m around his students, I’m surprised by the language.

    I also love the idea of having agents pop in this month on this column. Can’t wait to see what you have in store!

  27. Dialogue can be tricky whether in a YA or not. Thanks for the advice!

  28. Emma Kinna says:

    What a helpful article. Dialogues such a tricky thing, and it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. This really gives me something new to think about when I’m writing, thank you! Contest or no contest I will definitely be reading the DUFF.

  29. michele shaw says:

    Thank you for this post. I already have a copy of The Duff! It’s been out far too long for me not to! This topic is one I’m always working on in my YA novel. It’s about balance and blending reality into interesting and readable work. Great info!

  30. Becky Levine says:

    Nice post–good stuff to remember. :) I’ve heard wonderful things about DUFF. Please enter me in the contest!

  31. Meradeth says:

    As someone who spends too much time listening to other people’s conversations (hey–it happens when you work alone :), I have to agree. Sometimes though you catch the best lines though!

  32. Reena Jacobs says:

    I’ve spent some time on Kody’s blog. It’s nice to see young folks writing.

    I think your comment on realistic dialogue holds true for all stories. Folks can ramble all they want, but if there isn’t a story behind the dialogue, who really cares?

    Thanks for the giveaway.

  33. Kristan says:

    Haha, so true.

    And for the record, THE DUFF is fantastic! (Mmm, Wesley… So gross, and yet so charming.)

  34. Claire Dawn says:

    Yes!

    My neighbour and I took a train to a conference yesterday. On the hour-long trip, we talked. Most of the conversation was ‘um’ and ‘like’ and ‘totally.’

    Heavens no, not in my book!

  35. Najela says:

    I agree. I used to watch a lot of teen shows (not for the dialogue, but just because) and there is no way that type of dialogue could transfer into a novel. There is a lot of filler and talking over each other and screaming and shouting and while it may work for television it would probably be the most irritating thing to read in a novel. I think voice is important though. Voice can make your teen characters authentic without actually being true to realism "Like omg, right?" Not many people want to read this. And I know I sure don’t want to write it.

  36. Joanna,

    I agree with you, like totally, dude.

  37. Jen Zeman says:

    Great information to have as I finish revisions on my YA manuscript. Thanks!!

  38. Chuck says:

    I know I can’t win, but I’m commenting anyway!

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