Tuesday, April 15
Slinging Slang: The Case for Made-Up Words
Part of the How They Do It Series
Please help me welcome YA author Sarah Skilton to the site today, to chat with us about using slang terms in our novels--and why we should tread carefully.
Sarah is the author of BRUISED, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and which the Horn Book called, “nuanced and honest.” Her new novel, HIGH AND DRY, has been called “A dark, well-constructed mystery with a strong voice” by Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Southern California with her magician husband and their son.
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Take it away Sarah...
Language is an ever-evolving, living thing. Trying to keep up with its latest variations can feel like a fool’s errand. If your dialogue or narration include trendy phrases, they may sound woefully outdated by the time your book comes out, which risks distracting the reader. (Ditto with references to current TV shows and films.) What’s an author to do?
One way to get around this problem is to create your own slang and euphemisms. If you make them up, they can never go out of style. They become part of character voice, which in turn makes your characters unique to your story, and thus more memorable.
Unless you intend to write the next Clockwork Orange, use slang sparingly as a natural part of your book’s world building.
Consider the following examples, and how specific they are to the TV show that generated them:
In the tragically short-lived, early ‘90s teen soap opera Swans Crossing, the 14-year-old leads referred to adults as “grownies.” (Grown-ups who make you groan with their unfair rules.)
In the world of Veronica Mars, wealthy kids are known as 09ers, which refers to their exclusive zip code 90909.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so much slang was introduced in each episode that Michael Adams wrote a book about it. He claims the show altered the way real teens talk.
In Breaking Bad, sending someone on “a trip to Belize” means to kill them.
On 30Rock, “I want to go to there” became a catchphrase. It originated from the young daughter of show creator and star Tina Fey.
In my YA novel BRUISED (2013, Amulet Books), 16-year-old Imogen and her friends say “fuh” instead of the real F-word. No one remembers who started it, they just know that’s what they say, and in a small way, it binds them as a group.
For my new YA book, a mystery called HIGH AND DRY (2014, Amulet Books), I wanted to convey a sense of shared history and language for the teens at Palm Valley High, who traffic in labels for survival.
At Charlie Dixon’s school, you can’t just go up to someone from a different club and start talking to them, you have to clear it with the group’s leader first. The rule is enforced to save freshmen from being bullied, and to keep seniors from acquiring unwanted groupies.
I had fun concocting names for the various cliques in the school. Here’s a quick sneak peek:
Songbirds = Girls’ choir
Dot Govs = Student council (for the .gov website used by the White House)
Beckhams = Soccer players
Lincoln-Douglases = Debate teammembers, named afterthe style of debate used by Abraham Lincoln and his rival, Stephen Douglas
Ziploc Washer - Someone cheap, usually through necessity
Do real teens talk this way? No, or at least probably not -- but they likely have their own that would sound strange to people from other schools or other towns. We all develop a dialect based on shared history and location.
Think of the ultimate YA novel, THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton, which introduced readers to the Socs and the Greasers.
Slang also serves to differentiate between characters in a story, and to help youwrite characters who don’t sound like you. If a reader can immediately tell who’s speaking through the dialogue, without referring to the dialogue tags, you’re done your job as a writer.
Further Reading/Resources :
Flavorwire offers up as list of Contemporary Slang Words That Might Be Older Than You Think
About High & Dry