Talking Teen

Okay, I’ve wanted to say this for over a year. I think it’s totally creepy to stalk teens just to listen them to talk. It’s creepy to follow them around a mall. It’s creepy to tape record their conversations. It’s creepy to purposefully sit near them and write down what they say. Sorry.  (Maybe this is the parent in me?)

When writing for kids, voice and dialogue seem to be factors that make or break a story. Plots can be tweaked, an ending rewritten, characters strengthened, but capturing that teen voice in a YA novel is crucial. Heck, capturing any voice for any age in any novel is important.

Teens aren’t robots in that they all talk the same way. A group of peers might have similar lingo but you might not want to include trendy lingo in your story because eventually it will be outdated.

Kids, even teens, talk a lot like their parents. My children talk a lot like me – similar phrasing and word usage. And as much as I hate to admit it, I sometimes talk like my parents.

And the last thing we really want is authentic teen dialogue (or any authentic dialogue). Read Joanna S. Volpe’s thoughts on the GTLA blog this week.

What’s more important is what they talk about. What they are worried about. And you don’t need to stalk them to find these answers. Read books. Read psychological development books. Read other YA books.

And then, get to know your character – that will determine voice and how he/she talks.

What do you think? What are the limits to eavesdropping? Is there a right and wrong way to go about it? (Feel free to disagree with me!)

33 Responses to Talking Teen

  1. Elaine November 10, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Until a few weeks ago teens lurked through my house in, sometimes, unimaginable numbers. Opening the Minnow’s room was dangerous: like releasing the lid on a shaken bottle of highly carbonated liquid, half a dozen teen-girls spilled out.
    They could turn the talk on and off when ever they wanted.

  2. Andrea November 10, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Laura, I think it is a bit creepy to intentionally search out teens to eavesdrop on them [maybe this would be a good novel plot?]. But sometimes I overhear them talking when I’m out somewhere and can’t help but listen in.

    • Laura November 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

      Elain – Lucky you to have teens in your house!

      Andrea – Yes, I think that’s different than seeking them out. I just keep thinking if someone were following me around to listen to how a mom speaks. Kinda creepy.

  3. Creepy Query Girl November 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Honestly, I just watch a lot of teen shows and movies. I think in my head, I’m still kind of a teen and I just write things out as they sound in my head. I won’t use words like ’emo’ or ‘epic’ because, like you said, they’ll probably be outdated (at least I hope) soon.:)

  4. Laurel November 10, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    I’m a big advocate of volunteering and having authentic relationships with teens if you want to write them. There’s tutoring, scout troops, coaching, community theatre, school mentoring programs, church youth groups.

    I think it’s really important to know what it’s like to be a teen today and what specific concerns, worries, dreams, obstacles they face. Teens also make great beta readers and will passionately cheer you on in your writing–just be careful to make your characters unrecognizable composites if you do model on kids you know.

    • Laura November 10, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

      Laurel and Katie – Great advice! Having authentic relationships with teens def. is the way to go. But, I realize that’s not possible for everyone.

  5. Kris November 10, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    Stalking=creepy. Legitimate interactions with teens=not creepy. I don’t think you have to hang with teens necessarily to get the voice right. You don’t want to date your writing with tons of “now” lingo anyway.

    Definitely don’t follow them around the mall. 🙂 One idea, ask your local YA librarian if she knows of any teens/potential beta readers you could talk to. Or ask the high school English teacher if you could form a think-tank with some students interested in writing.

  6. Kelly Polark November 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    I don’t think it’s creepy to just sit on a bench and listen to what’s around you. I don’t go to the mall much, but sometimes I sit and rest and just people watch. People of all ages are interesting. And if you learn about what teens are saying while you are taking a breather, write it down or pack it in your brain for future use!
    I do think you learn more though by having real interactions with them like family members (though they won’t always talk with you like they talk with friends).

  7. Angela Felsted November 10, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Eavesdropping is creepy.

  8. Anna November 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Laura, I think you are absolutely right that it’s more important what teens talk about than how they talk. I actually love when authors make up their own lino for their characters (as long as it doesn’t detract from the story). Teens often have funny phrases and inside jokes they invent and use with each other – it’s totally believable that teen characters would do the same.

  9. Quinn November 10, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    I think that everyone eavesdrops. It’s part of our nature to be curious.

    Do I think it’s necessary though to right an authentic teen voice? No.

  10. Jennifer Hoffine November 10, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    I’ll admit that I do listen in on conversations (any-aged conversations) more since becoming a writer…in line at the store, in the park, at the school playground…but no stalking. Never.

    I agree with you that the main key to capturing a teen voice is to get what motivates teens psychologically, and that teen character in particular.

  11. Patti Nielson November 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    I listen once in a while if they’re close by and I don’t look like a stalker, but for the most part I find their conversations would be too boring to put in a book.

  12. Karen Strong November 10, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    I agree Laura, stalking is probably not a good idea! Ha.

    I agree with you though. Even if you were to listen in on a group of teens — their way of communicating would be unique to them.

    Teens are as unique as anything else. Totally agree that you can get a teen voice right by first figuring out how your teen character ticks and her motivation. That voice can expand from that.

  13. Paul November 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Very True, Laura. I loved Joanna’s post, too!

  14. Tina Lee November 10, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    I love the comment about having authentic relationships with teens. And it seems extending that to having authentic relationships with characters as well would help you find a authentic voice.

    As far as eavesdropping, I would do it if it were easy, if they orbited nearby as in that lovely comment above from Elaine. Some teens actually don’t want to talk to you but would really like you to listen. And as a result make it easy by being loud and showing off nearby. But I never record.

  15. Laura Marcella November 10, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    I agree! It’s probably inappropriate to actively search for a group of teens to spy and eavesdrop on their behavior. I know some authors who receive permission to sit with middle-graders during their lunch hour at school, so I think as long as you let the kids or teens know you’re taking notes on their dialogue and interaction, then it’s appropriate.

    Watching teen television shows or movies is a great way for learning how teens talk. But you have to be careful because some are way too mature; some of my friends love Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill and those shows made me laugh out loud they were so ridiculous. While I can’t speak for everyone of course, I can say that most teens don’t talk and act the way those shows portray them!

  16. Susan R. Mills November 10, 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    As I was reading this post, I was thinking about that guest post on GTLA. It was a good one. I totally agree with you. Now, I do on occassion listen in on my daughter and her friends. They know I’m doing it, and have agreed to allow me to use them for fodder. I don’t necessarily look for dialogue, but more a sense of what is important to them and what they feel about certain things.

  17. Nelsa November 10, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Totally agree, Laura. Had a post on the Teen Voice myself a little while ago. Voice comes from character. Focus on your character and the voice will come. I have two teen daughters and the last thing I want to do is follow them around eavesdropping on their conversations! Mostly because what I don’t know won’t hurt me :).

  18. MG Higgins November 10, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    Interesting post! I think there are regional factors to be aware of, too. Stalking teens around town, especially if it’s a small town, you might end up with lingo unique to that area. I like the “voice comes from character” advice.

    • Laura November 10, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

      I’ve been #amwriting and came back to these awesome comments. I agree, there is nothing wrong with people watching, listening to learn. And we can’t help but overhear what people say around us. But I think there is a line. And yes, most often what we’d hear in the mall wouldn’t be the good stuff anyway!

  19. patti November 10, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    Isn’t this part of our job description as writers? I thought so!!!

    You go, girl. Just don’t get punched out…or humiliate your kids! 🙂


  20. Jennifer Shirk November 10, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    People watching is cool, but stalking and eavesdropping is kind of creepy–especially to strangers!
    I agree, I don’t think teens “talk” a different way from adults but what they think is important is very different. Because of that, I don’t think eavesdropping is going to get writers very far.

  21. Cheryl Schenk November 10, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    Not good to be lurking around and eavesdropping on teens.

    I think teens are no different than adults when reading. They don’t want characters that are just like themselves. Therefore we can be a little creative in who they are and how they speak. We can make them more interesting in their personalities through defined differences in their speech.

    Think of Bella (Twilight) and Flavia de Luce (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). Both very different young people, misfits, but it works.

  22. Catherine A. Winn November 11, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I tried the eavesdropping thing in the mall and felt like exactly how you said, creepy, and didn’t do it again. I don’t think it hurts to be at a food court and listen if they sit next to you, or eavesdrop in the checkout line at the grocery store, as long as everything is accidental, but to stalk the kids, that bothers me.

  23. Kelly B November 11, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    As I am teenless I didn’t realize this was a problem, but you are right it would creep me out too!

  24. Marcia November 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    I think following them or anything else stalker-ish would be creepy. “Stalker-ish” being defined as doing something that could make them feel spied on or watched (such as taking notes while glancing at them frequently). Anything that could make you get caught, in other words. But getting out of the office and going somewhere where people hang out and keeping your ears open — nothing wrong with that. I think teen books, magazines, websites, and so forth can help, but I’ve also heard them criticized by teens as missing the mark.

  25. shelley November 11, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    I always feel super awkward about eavesdropping. I kind of hate it when people talk to loud ( a lot of time on their phone) that you are FORCED to listen.

  26. Glynis Jolly November 11, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    I don’t think I’m quite as strict in my eavesdropping rule as you are. Walking close enough to actually hear most conversations would mean being right up next to them. Definitely invading private space. Sitting on a bench or whatever in a mall next to people talking — that’s okay. People have a tendency to talk a little louder when they’re relaxing. You wouldn’t necessarily have to be in that person’s private space to hear him or her.

    Mind you, this is just my opinion.

    • Laura November 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

      To clarify, I think there are lots of great places to go and be near teens that’s not creepy – but I don’t think that’s going to help with writing a teen voice or dialogue. It’s getting to know them as people, not just eavesdropping. Same goes with kids. Just listening to them on a playground only shows one small aspect of being a kid.

  27. Jen Daiker November 12, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    Wait… stalking teens is bad?

    Yeah I watch as much TV as I can, then spend time with my cousins, go to the movies, just for a moment to put myself in their shoes!

  28. Kristy Logan Neild November 12, 2010 at 2:39 am #

    I have a teenage son and often play host to the revolving door of his friends. I’ve never considered eavesdropping on them as I’m usually trying to drown out the constant barrage of ‘sweet’, ‘for real?’ and ‘dope’ 🙂 Creepy indeed.

  29. angela November 15, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    This is where I’m so grateful to have kids in the teen range. It is amazing what I filter from what I hear and observe and then put right into my writing. It’s not always what they say either, but the attitudes toward things and what is deemed important or not.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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