Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Keepin' It Real

I’m in perpetual research mode with my teens—full-on observation when they’re in the halls, in my room, picking up on their subtle nuances, those little quirks that make each of them so distinct. And I listen. I listen to their bits of random conversation, and I’ll admit—when I hear one of them say something that Ohmygosh, my character would totally say that! I “creatively borrow” it for my story.

Listening to teens can be enlightening and most helpful in keeping your YA fresh and REAL, bu-ut sometimes you can make it too real. And lose your reader in the process.

Case in point:

Hey, Cara
What’s up?
So, did you do your homework for Simmons?
What homework? Did we have homework?
Yes. We had, like thirty problems on some weird math crap. I totally slept through class yesterday. Don't you remember?
No. I had an orthodontist appointment. Left early, remember.
*shakes head*
I must've left while you were sleeping.
So you didn't do your homework?
Um, no. Did you?
Nope. I was going to copy yours.
Maybe Josie did hers.
Yeah, you know? Josie. That girl in the front, always answering questions, the one going out with Brett.
*rolls eyes* OMG, she’s going out with Brett Chambers?
Yeah, for like, two weeks.
Brett Chambers? Ew. He’s such a tool.
I know.
And like, such a jerk.
I know!
And he, like…God, he’s such a tool. I can’t believe she’s going out with him. He’s such a jerk.

(Repeat chorus five times before bell rings or lunch is over or whatever.)

I often joke that I wonder if my “bro,” “man,” and “dude” count is too high in my stories, and then I listen to the boys in my classroom and realize that I could triple that number. But I won't. Or when my tween tries to tell me about something super awesome that happened at lunch and every fourth word is either “like” or “um, yeah and so” and twenty minutes later I still have no idea what happened at lunch (I don’t think she does either), am I putting that in my story? She’s adorable and I love her, but no.

But why not? Why won’t I up the “dude” count? Why won’t I have two girls repeat the same thing five times in ten sentences? It’s realistic, right?

Maybe. But it’s too real. And as much as I love my teens and my daughter, those conversations are the foreplay to complete boregasm.

Keep the dialogue real, but make it interesting. Make it flow. Make it natural. And make sure every word has a purpose. Ensure every piece of dialogue contributes to the story or to the character’s MO or SOMETHING.

For me, reading a series of dialogue is like watching amazing give-and-go in soccer (it’s the husband influence) One player passes the ball to another (GIVE), and then GOes down field to receive a pass back from that player. They keep doing this (maybe involving more players) until (hopefully) the players take the ball down the field and score. When orchestrated JUST RIGHT, give-and-go is beautiful in its simplicity. And that’s how well-crafted dialogue feels and flows for me—beautiful, effortless. It just flows naturally.

And Since It's Undercover Wednesday

Any novels or authors that just “get it” in terms of dialogue?

TEEN SPY Lissa shared her thoughts:

Most authors do a great job with dialogue, in my opinion. I like it when they're able to capture a sly, joking tone - good comebacks, funny lines, etc. - without disturbing the tone of the book. I just read Bitter End by Jennifer Brown, and her dialogue was fantastic because she was able to write conversations that reflected relationships - the book was about abuse in a serious relationship, and the dialogue she used was realistic because she kept in mind the situation.

I agree. Most authors do an amazing job with dialogue, and there are three that, IMHO, nail it. Well-placed dialogue that engages me, is relevant to the story, doesn’t disrupt flow, and is incredibly AUTHENTIC.

Before I Fall is one of my favorite YA novels—the story is insanely poignant, one I’m convinced every teen should read. But everything about it is so REAL—the characters, the situations, and especially the dialogue. Lauren Oliver’s writing is BEAUTIFUL, and the dialogue is spot on.

I distinctly remember reading the Mandy Hubbard fabulosity this summer, gawking at pages, wondering how Mandy Hubbard made her characters sound so freaking real. Trust me. Read it. The passages between Lexi and her so-called friends—I was so immersed in their back-and-forth, I felt like I right there with them, back in high school.

And maybe it’s because she’s still practically a teen herself, but when it comes to voice and dialogue—Kody Keplinger just gets it. And since I used the whole soccer analogy, here's the book jacket blurb and a small-ish bit of dialogue from Kody Keplinger’s SHUT OUT.

Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it's a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part, Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her to go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy's car has been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend's attention.

Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: she and the other players' girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won't get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don't count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. And Lissa never sees her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling, coming.

And the excerpt...

“Where is everyone? Lunch started two minutes ago. It can’t just be us.”
“Did you really expect everyone to show?”
“Because everyone else has to hate this as much as I do,” I said, crossing my arms. “I can’t be the only one sick of this stupid fight.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” Chloe said. “But you’re the only one crazy and controlling enough to think you can do shit about it.”
Just then, the library doors opened and a group of three girls walked in, all carrying sack lunches. It took them only a second to locate the table I’d specified in the email, and they took their seats across from Chloe and me.
“Hey, Lissa,” they each said in turn.
I nodded in welcome.
They ignored Chloe completely.
She ignored them right back.
“So, what’s this about again?”Kelsey Foagler asked, twirling a strand of her blond hair around a long manicured finger.
“I have a plan to end the rivalry,” I told her.
“Oh, right. That’s adorable.” It was her MO to sound incredibly sincere.

As For Profanity

I’ll watch anything with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, but Wedding Crashers? Not so much. Loved the premise. Loved the characters. I just couldn’t get past the f-bomb being dropped every five seconds. And it’s not like I don’t watch movies saturated in obscenity (Hangover Fan Club President here), but even the vulgar’s got to be natural. It’s got to be called for.

Look, I’m a teacher. I walk hallways and hear stuff I probably shouldn't. And I know that, for some kids, every fifth word is a cuss word. As a team statistician, I’m right there with the football team most Friday nights. When they screw up, when the refs screw up, the obscenity spew is nauseating. But in YA, it’s got to mean something. It’s got to be called for. It’s got be natural to the story. And not seem forced.

Just like any dialogue.

So, observe teens, listen to them. But maybe more for what they have to say then how they’re saying it. And then craft it into clever, authentic, beautiful give-and–take dialogue.

Make sure it contributes to the story. Make sure it’s natural. Make sure the dialogue does not disrupt flow. (PS - reading it aloud helps soooo much with this!)

And read. There are a lot of books that rock in terms of dialogue. My list of three could have been way longer.

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, a good story is "life, with the dull parts taken out."

Just keep it real, yo.

But not too real.

Agent A—out.


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