Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kids Say the Darndest Things

If you've ever been around kids of any age, you know it's true--they say the darndest things! These days it seems kids have a language all of their own--"whatevs" and "totes" makes my grammarian skin crawl, but kids continue to say it--even my own (to my dismay!)

As a middle grade author, giving my pre-teen characters an authentic voice is important. Luckily, I've been told that I have a knack for hitting middle grade dialogue on the head. So what are some tips for achieving appropriate kid lingo?

1. Hang around kids! I have a middle grade son, so I'm able to eavesdrop on his conversations with friends and even look at the texts they exchange (stimulating stuff, let me tell you). And it's not just what they say, but how they say it--the inflections and tone of their voices, which comments they laugh at and which comments warrant an eye roll. I pay attention to how they talk to me (which is very different than how they talk to their peers). What is their thought process and what type of logic do they use during an argument? (My son should go to law school!) Perhaps middle grade dialogue comes naturally for me because I'm around it 24 hours a day. Maybe when my kids are in high school I'll try writing a YA novel! (OMG!)

2. Watch the TV Shows Kids Watch! If you have kids, you probably try to tune out the teeny-bopper shows on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel that are always on your TV (I know I try to!) However, these can come in handy as another source for picking up on what kids say--especially if you aren't around kids very often. Once you look past the cheesy plots and bad acting, kids identify with these shows for a reason, and we can learn a lot by watching them (just an episode or two--I'm not advocating setting your DVR to record a whole season of iCarly!)

3. Pay attention to Social Media! I realize most middle graders aren't on Facebook or using Twitter (nor should they be) but most of them know what they are and talk about popular culture. Many middle graders are already texting and familiar with that language. Even if you don't use it in your writing, it's a part of our children's world and will become even more so. Don't get left behind!

4. Remember When You Were a Kid! I grew up in the 80s listening to the Material Girl, wearing jelly shoes, and flipping my collar up on my hot pink Polo shirt. I was like, totally obsessed with my hair and pretty much boy-crazy. I remember using words like "parental units" and boys asked if you wanted to "go" with them (which meant be their girlfriend). Even though kids today might not use the same vocabulary, I can recall the feelings associated with activities and events and draw on my experiences as a middle grader.

For example, let's say a middle grade girl is getting ready to go to a school dance. She's worried about her outfit and her hair. As an adult, we might say, "I hope I'm not overdressed."  But a middle grade girl might say, "I will just die if Suzy is wearing the same thing!"

Obviously, what your middle grade characters say also depends on their individual personalities. For example, in the Harry Potter books, Ron and Harry always say, "yeah," whereas Hermoine always replies with a very proper "yes." (I'd be floored if my kids did that!)

For your exercise, take the following lines of dialogue and see if you can turn them into "kid speak." Try it several ways, maybe once as two girls talking to each other, again as two boys, or even mixed gender.

"What would you like to do after school today?"
"I'm not sure."
"Would you like to go to a movie? The new Tom Cruise flick received rave reviews."
"I really like Tom Cruise. That sounds like fun. Oh no! I just remembered, I have practice after school. I won't be able to go to the movie."
"That's too bad. Maybe another time."

When it comes to creating authentic kid dialogue, really scrutinize every line they say. Ask yourself, does this sound too "adult?" Would a kid really say that? And if all else fails, put in a bunch of acronyms and emoticons--chances are, you'll cover about 75% of their language right there! LOL, TTYL! :)

Kathy Sattem Rygg is the author of the middle grade novel ANIMAL ANDY, available from MuseItUp (currently on sale for only $2.50!) She can be found at www.ksrwriter.com, on Twitter @kathyrygg, and on Facebook under KSR Writer.


Paul R. Hewlett said...

Excellent tips, thanks so much for posting. I really enjoyed it.

Paul R. Hewlett

Unknown said...

Hi Kathy -
Yes, this is so true. Great post.
I just plotted a mid-grade novel about a kid named Wily, so this came in handy. Wish you were close by to help me brainstorm the plot. Plotting is such a blast.