Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slinging Slang: The Case for Made-Up Words

By Sarah Skilton, @Sarah_Skilton 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: 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 If your dialogue or narration include trendy phrases, they may sound woefully outdated by the time your book comes out, which risks distracting the reader.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

Framed for a stranger’s near-fatal overdose at a party, blackmailed into finding a mysterious flash drive everyone in school seems anxious to suppress, and pressured by his shady best friend to throw an upcoming match, high school soccer player Charlie Dixon is juggling more than his share of drama. Add in a broken heart and the drinking he’s been doing to soothe it, and he’s near the breaking point. In this fast-paced, layered mystery, Charlie spends a frantic week trying to clear his name, win back the girl of his dreams, and escape a past friendship that may be responsible for all his current problems. This book captures the tone and style of the best crime fiction while also telling a high-stakes story of peer pressure gone tragically awry.


  1. Great examples, and it's MUCH more creative and challenging to come up with our own words! :)

  2. In my memory, concocting our own slang was part of becoming a cohesive group in high school. We had our inside terms for all kinds of things. Joss Whedon's scripts are a fabulous example of this. Even more adult shows like Firefly have their own sets of world building slang. Shiny!

  3. This is such a great device since real slang will read as dated as the current pop culture stars. I like the idea of inventing nicknames or in-language unique to your characters and your book. You can have a lot of fun with that, like in Mean Girls "Stop trying to make 'Fetch' happen."

  4. I think this is a great idea too!! More fun with words!!

  5. Love your made up words. They all make such great sense!!

  6. Sarah! One of my local writing buddies :)

    Bruised was amazing and I can't wait to read High & Dry. I love the names you gave the cliques. Dot Guvs is my favorite.

  7. I'll add this to the list of reasons to use some made-up words: it creates a connection between the readers and the characters because they're sharing those made-up words.

    In a subtle way, you've included the reader at a much deeper level, and other readers know what you mean when you reference the words. In a way, you've made a clique around the fictional clique.

    It's small, but certainly not insignificant. The one thing I've noticed most about fictional slang is that repetition is very important. Like the word Muggle, its the repetition that gives it power as its found in multiple contexts and ingrains itself in the reader's mind.

    Good post! Really enjoyed the refreshing perspective.

  8. You are so right about the alternate naming in the teen world. My kids were always having to translate for me. They are also good resources on what terms are "out." Supporting your point that 'tis better to make it up then let it be stale. Congrats on HIGH AND DRY.