So, I hear you're writing a novel. Ah, you want your main characters to be in high school, you say? Around the ripe old age of 14-17? So they're relatable, impressionable, and innovative? Truly groundbreaking.
Rarely am I the one to critique an artist on his or her work, but there has been a disturbing trend in video games, novels, and movies featuring young people: The Most Unrealistic Goddamn Dialogue.
Especially with the utilization of the Internet, certain words and phrases, similar to memes and fashion trends, go out of style fairly quickly; #hip language does not age well, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Even when texting, no one uses "dat" unless they want to get the side-eye. If I see or hear the word "hella" in any form, I mentally give myself fifty lashes.
Take, for example, Square Enix's "Life is Strange," a game about a loner photographer girl who gains the ability to travel back in time. The game had beautifully stylized art, a compelling story, and generally well-developed, realistic characters...
...right up until they opened their mouths. I almost didn't finish this game because the dialogue was so atrocious and cringe-worthy. I'm sure this aspect of "Life is Strange" has already been covered by many other, better-written articles, but it felt like a crime had been committed against me personally. Using cliche quips is maybe acceptable once or twice in a narrative, but about ten minutes into the first "episode" and it was clear that whoever wrote this was above the age of 35 and had the Wikipedia page for youth slang open in a separate window while doing so.
All of these lines were said unironically:
- "Ready for the mosh pit, shaka brah."
- "Who even cares? This class is hella bullshit!"
- "I hope you checked the perimeter, as my step-ass would say. Now, let's talk bidness."
- "Now you're totally stuck in the retro zone. Sadface."
Dialogue is meant to be immersive, informative, yet colored with a touch of nuance. It can set the tone of a scene and build your world into something tangible. Just as you roll your eyes at the youth who manage a rate of 15 swears/minute, the rest of us roll our eyes at bad writing. The worst thing you can do is underestimate your readers and their ability to detect bullshit.
You know what you should do instead? Write your young characters like they're actual people. Risky, I know, but I remember who I was at fourteen; maybe I didn't know how to drive or make interesting conversation with adults, but I was an articulate speaker, and only used "slang" (which was really just swearing) as an expression of nihilism and pure irony. In my experience, bullying was never as overt as "go fuck your selfie," but more along the lines of emotional manipulation and vague arguments suggesting whose mental illness took priority.
We're not asking you to prove to your readers that you are "with it," but that you don't skimp on dialogue with throwaway lines and irritating, shallow stereotypes.