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Hearing Voices: Tips for Writing Teen Dialog by Catherine Chant

Authentic teen dialog starts with creating distinct character voices, so they don’t all sound the same. Ideally, you shouldn’t need speech tags all over the place to indicate who is speaking. Word choices and character actions go a long way in painting a clear picture of who says what without interrupting the story flow. It’s also important to remember that boys and girls speak differently, but it all comes down to who they are as individuals.

When setting out to craft dialog for your YA novel, think about each character’s personality, education and background. This will help you determine their word choices and any phrases they may use frequently. Try to avoid overuse of slang, though, as this goes in and out of fashion very quickly and can date your story.

Although dialog is an outward form of expression, the voice behind it starts within. Emotions run high in the teen years. Teens are experiencing a lot of firsts at this age, and may not know how to handle it all. Some teens lean toward the over-dramatic–everything is a crisis, the end of the world–and they aren’t afraid to tell their friends what’s going on inside their minds. Example, my son, who has been known to rant and rave about various things, pretty much to anyone who will listen. He’s expressing his feelings out loud as a way to deal with and process them.

On the other extreme, you have teens who prefer to bottle everything up and keep it locked inside. Example, myself at that age. I was the type who was mentally over-dramatic. My imagination was off the charts. But I never told anyone what I was thinking. Not even my friends. Instead, I would come home and pour out my feelings into a diary. (Is it any wonder I’m a writer today?). I just didn’t think anyone would understand what I was going through. I got a reputation as “the quiet girl,” but inside my head, I was anything but quiet.

Below is an excerpt from a new YA novel I’m working on called Hush: The Dead Don’t Tell. It involves four girls at a school bus stop. Look at what each of the girls says and how she acts. See if you can tell who’s a drama queen and who would rather keep things to herself.

—-BEGIN EXCERPT—

(Megan, the narrator, is the new girl in town, now living in the house where Syndee, Karla and Ali’s friend Laura used to live. Laura disappeared last year and has never been found. Karla believes Laura is dead and has been joking that Megan’s house is now haunted.)

“You don’t belong there,” a tall blonde said as soon as she spotted me coming down my driveway to catch the school bus. First day of school jitters were bad enough. Now I had to deal with hostile natives as well.

She strutted up to me in expensive platforms she totally did not need with the supermodel height she already had going on. Then I realized she probably enjoyed being able to look down on people, literally.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said as pleasantly as I could. “I’m Megan, by the way.” I hoped my placating smile didn’t come across as too phony.

“Well, Megan, you’re in my friend Laura’s house and when she comes back, so will her family. So I wouldn’t unpack too much.” She punctuated the end of her words by flipping her perfectly straight hair over her shoulder, nearly putting out the eye of a shorter girl following behind her. “Don’t expect to step into Laura’s life as easily as you moved into her home, either. No one can replace her.”

“Okay, chill,” I said. “I have no idea who Laura is, and I like my own life just fine.” Which was a complete lie, of course. We wouldn’t have moved six hundred miles if everything had been fine back in Virginia.
Blondie shot me a look she probably hoped would slice right through me, just like she hoped her towering height would make me cower, but I ignored it. Instead, I took a deep breath and opted for a do-over. I had to remember my plan. Stick to the plan, Megan.

This move was my one chance to do things differently and make up for past mistakes. Making enemies on the first day, even if she didn’t seem like someone I’d want to be friends with, wasn’t good “fitting in” strategy. I needed suck it up and just be friendly to everyone. She sure was making that difficult, though.

“Listen,” I said in relaxed voice, “I’m sorry Laura moved away. I’m sure you miss her a lot. I left some friends back in Richmond, too, but–”

“She didn’t move away,” said the short girl who’d nearly lost an eye to Blondie’s overdramatic hair flip a moment ago. “Tell her the truth, Cindy.”

The pageboy hair cut and rectangular glasses on the shorter girl had me thinking of Velma from Scooby-Doo, but her attempt to copy an outfit from the pages of Seventeen said she had more interest in fashion than Velma ever did.

Probably why she hung around with the bitchy girl. Cindy’s personality might be vile, but she did know her labels. The Gucci bag slung over her shoulder looked real enough. Then I noticed her gold keychain dangling from the strap. Of course. She wasn’t a C-I-N-D-Y. She was a S-Y-N-D-E-E. Figures.

“She didn’t move,” Velma volunteered when Syndee didn’t speak up. “She disappeared.”

“What do you mean, disappeared?” I asked. “Like ran away?”

Out of nowhere a huge gust of wind smacked into me and goose bumps rose up on my arms. No one else seemed to notice.

“Shut up, Karla.” Syndee shot the smaller girl a nasty look almost as harsh as the one she’d leveled on me a moment ago, and Velma-Karla’s face clamped down in a sulk.

Oh no, another wannabe. More goose bumps crept up my arms, this time from a sense of familiarity. Part of me sympathized because I’d been there. I’d done the wannabe thing for years with my older sister Amanda—the ultimate Daphne. It failed miserably. Karla would learn it wasn’t worth sucking up soon enough. Her friend here seemed more like Amanda every second I spent with her, and a person could only take so much Amanda before they wised up. But Karla and I would have nothing in common if she continued cowing down to girls like Amanda and Syndee.

And dammit, I needed to make friends here, because normal girls had friends. They had a life. I wanted a life, too. After everything I’d been through, I deserved this chance.

“Maybe Laura’ll haunt her until she moves out,” Karla whispered to Blondie, loud enough for me to hear.

“Laura’s going to haunt me?” I looked from one girl to the other. Were they for real? If a ghost story was the best “tease the new girl” material she could come up with, I had little to worry about. I was almost sixteen, not five.

“You’ll see,” Karla said. “That swing back there…” She pointed to my backyard where a weathered Adirondack chair hung from ropes attached to a massive oak tree. “…it swings all by itself. That means she’s coming to get you.” But she could barely keep a straight face as she said it.

“Karla, you’re such an ass.” The blonde turned away from us to face the road.

“You brought it up,” Karla said.

“Not as a joke.”

Through all this discussion a third girl, skinny with shiny black hair, had hung back at the curb, as if she didn’t want to get in Syndee’s way or something. Now she spoke up.

“Syndee’s right. It’s not a joke.”

Karla looked like she wanted to argue, but kept quiet.

“You guys are crazy if you expect me to believe a ghost lives in my house.” I waited a beat.

No one said anything.

Syndee stared at the street, Karla found something interesting about her ratty, black high-tops painted with sparkly hearts, and the other girl fidgeted with her backpack. I glanced at my watch wondering where the hell the bus was.

“Okay, maybe I was being a little insensitive,” Karla said quietly, still looking at her shoes. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or Syndee.

“You think?” Syndee shot back.

“But it’s still possible,” Karla muttered, not exactly to herself.

“Fine, Karla, I’ll bite,” I said lightly. “Why would Laura, who I don’t even know, want to haunt me?”

“Because you’re in her house,” Karla shot me a look like I was a moron, “and she wouldn’t like it.”

I had no response to that. I suppressed the urge to say Laura might like me if she got to know me, but that was a bit morbid, and no one was laughing anymore.

The third girl approached the bus stop, a little hesitant a first. Her long hair kept falling across her face and she’d move it behind her ear, only for it to come loose again.

“I’m Ali. Alvarez,” she added quickly, as if I might meet another Ali today and get her confused. “I saw your moving van the other day. I meant to come over, bu—”

Syndee cleared her throat and we both looked over to her, but only for a second. Ali squared her shoulders and turned her attention back to me.

“I live over there.” She pointed to a small ranch house down the street painted a drab mustard color. Her yard looked like it hadn’t seen a mower all summer.

“I’m Megan O’Neal,” I said, relieved to be having a normal conversation at last.

Syndee made another unpleasant sound at the back of her throat. She probably thought Ali was sucking up to me. On rare occasions a new girl was treated like an exotic transplant other people craved to know. Of course that only seemed to happen with foreign exchange students who could tell you how cool it was to live overseas, but I could always hope the same might happen for me one day. I just came from Virginia, though—not even D.C.—and before that Illinois and Texas, so I really couldn’t say I had anything exotic to offer.

“I guess you knew Laura, too?” I said to Ali, glancing at Syndee still emulating an iron lamppost at the curb. At least Ali wasn’t getting all up in my face about it like some people.

“Not exactly,” Syndee muttered without turning around, but Karla piped up with an enthusiastic, “Yes! We all did.”

Maybe Karla had more backbone than I’d given her credit for. She hadn’t let any of Syndee’s dirty looks or reprimands keep her quiet long. Or maybe she was just that type that couldn’t help herself. A blurter. Horrible at keeping secrets, but great for the latest gossip. Without Syndee attached to her hip, we might get along okay.

“Hard not to think about her, especially on the first day of school,” Ali said. Her eyes slipped past me to my house—or Laura’s house I guess, whoever Laura was–and her lips pressed together.

I followed her gaze to the historic colonial with black shutters and white trim. The realtor sign with the big “SOLD” splashed across it still leaned against the front porch.

“Okay, I get it.” I looked from Syndee to Karla to Ali. “Your friend Laura used to live here and you’re upset she moved, but Halloween isn’t until next month. Can we hold off on the ghost stories ‘til then?”

“I told you, she didn’t move,” Karla said, her brown eyes widening as she lowered her voice and leaned closer to us. “She was murdered.”

“Karla, shut up!” A frustrated growl rumbled from Syndee’s throat as she stomped farther away. Another step and she’d be in the street.

“You aren’t serious,” I said. “When you said she’d disappeared, I thought you were kidding.” Then I paused. Was this another wind up? A joke to see if I’d buy it? But seeing the way Syndee stood ramrod straight, refusing to take part in my humiliation, which I knew she should otherwise enjoy, and the troubled look on Ali’s face, they sure seemed to believe it.

“I’m totally serious,” Karla said. No hint of a smirk this time, but maybe a little too much morbid excitement.

(c) 2016 Catherine Chant

—END EXCERPT—

So what’s your verdict? Were you able to tell that Karla and Megan aren’t afraid to express themselves out loud, while Ali and Syndee are little quieter? Syndee is actually more middle-of-the-road. Earlier in the scene she has no problem getting all up in Megan’s face about living in Laura’s house, but once the conversation turns to Laura’s disappearance, her emotions turn inward and she physically moves away from the group.

Also notice that although Megan is the main character, all four girls provide important dialog to the scene, and each is different.

In your own work, look at each individual character, not just the main character but the sidekicks and secondary characters, too. Examine their backgrounds and other qualities that make them who they are, and use this to craft dialog that fits with their personality and traits. Are they ranters or bottlers or somewhere in the middle? Show that through how they speak and act around other characters in your story.

On the 4th of April, Catherine’s workshop: Writing YA Fiction starts.

Workshop Blurb: In this workshop you will learn what young adult fiction is, how it’s more than just stories with younger characters, and how to successfully craft a novel aimed at the young adult market. You will also develop a brief outline for your own young adult story.

For more information, check it out here.

[box type=”bio”]Catherine ChantAward-winning author Catherine Chant is an active member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and a Golden Heart® finalist. She writes rock ‘n’ rock romantic fiction and stories with paranormal twists for young adults.

Catherine worked for 15 years as an IT computing & communication consultant at Boston College before becoming a full-time writer. She has been an online educator since 2006. She teaches several online workshops for writers at various RWA chapters throughout the year. Her non-fiction work has appeared on numerous websites, where she writes instructional articles about creative writing, computing, gaming and crafts.

Catherine is currently working on a new young adult suspense novel, and the next book in her Soul Mates series.

You can find out more about Catherine at her website, Twitter or Facebook.[/box]

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Catherine Chant is an active member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and a Golden Heart® finalist. She writes rock ‘n’ roll romantic ficti...