Interesting conversations : writing dialogue for Young Adults.

Why what you overhear in the local shopping outlet does not belong in our literature.

Photo courtesy of

“Dialogue in books needs to be more interesting than real life counterparts.”

I put this statement to the test recently in a little exercise deciding on how to write dialogue for my YA novels. I spent a day down in my local shopping centre inconspicuously eavesdropping on conversations between students, praying that I was not outed as a sex pest or lurker.

By the end of the day, bloated and waterlogged with copious helpings of cake and cups of tea, I used my sugar-fuelled high to compare the results of dictated ramblings from shopping mall adolescents with that of my imagined versions. It did not paint a pretty picture for the youth of today. I was horrified. Without sounding too old, back in my teen years, a danger was the copious use of ‘um’ making us sound unsure, or a little slow on the uptake. Today it seems to have been superseded by ‘like’ – in addition to IM acronyms and pop culture slang. “Like, OMG that dude was like, totes clocking you’re A double dollar signs.” They all mimicked an American fourteen year old girl from a plethora of teen movie blockbusters.

It was in every conversation, infecting our English language with irrelevant words clogging up sentences. Even their topics of incessant babbling were laborious. At times I was in danger of lapsing into a coma from boredom. I had decided that I was nothing like that as a teen, and perhaps the target market of my novels weren’t the type that hung out in shopping centres, but rather, anti-social in their bedrooms and lounge rooms with nose in a book… well most likely a kindle or on a smart phone.

I know I hoped I wasn’t going to sound too old; but it’s apparent – I’m ancient! A bitter, appalled at the attitudes and intelligence of young’uns today, aging bitty!

Writers in my genre occasionally use slang in their narratives to give a modern edge to their novels, but I’m glad that no-one actually writes the way I heard over the last few days – I’d be burning the book instead of returning it to the shelf.

So what should we be doing to keep in touch with today’s young adult readers? We want to have fresh, hip and witty banter without it melting our brains right? The main difference between what is overheard at the Mall, and what is written on the page is motivation and intent. Most of the real life conversations I eavesdropped on were simply inane chatter – filling the emptiness and finding a common ground for acceptance in a group. Writing dialogue for your characters generally has a purpose, so of course they are going to sound completely different. What would happen if you asked those Mallrats an intelligent question? Their language would change.

While it’s a great exercise in social behaviour and to glean colloquial terms and slang, it’s not something you want to use as a template for writing your novel. Most teens read to be entertained, connect with a character and learn something in the process: about the world, about relationships, about language. So writers are given leniency in creating dialogue that is a tad unrealistic.

The kind of thing I transcribed while drowning in warm cuppas and sugary snacks are the conversations we skip over in our writing. It’s space-filler. The only merit I could garner was tuning in to current fads and phrases. Comparing writing from ten and even twenty years ago in the same genre – are they any less relatable now? Do they still ring true to today’s audience? The answer is yes! So in my quest for ideas to create captivating dialogue, another source is needed. Some controlled studies and conversations with the target audience; movies and television, novels released in the same genre… they are all great tools for inspirations, but in the end it has to be your own instincts that make the decision.

I’d set out trying to offer up a great tip for writing, but instead discovered, like many of our ideas,  it comes from the ether. A magical place where plots, storylines, and characters materialize from, forming and evolving in our grey matter before we finally put pen to paper and scribe out our inner workings.

As unclear as that answer is, our ideas and imagination also need to be tended to, fed on a diet of art, literature and life experience. As our bodies ‘are what we eat,’ so is the muse. Read widely, discuss ideas, experience many wild and wonderful things, it all matures and colours your writing. And as always – never give up! ‘Because, like, you know, it’s all tot’s awesome.’

If you have interesting tips on writing attention-grabbing dialogue for a Young Adult audience, I’d love to hear your feedback – or swap a funny story about your research.

Happy writing.


© Casey Carlisle 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s