Writing Authentic Dialogue: Millennial Edition

Of the things I struggle with the most as an author, writing authentic dialogue tops the list. Dialogue often needs to be grammatically incorrect, with sentences of wildly varying lengths, sloppy, happy, and much less precise than written narrative. Conversation is so intricate, so nuanced so not… well, formal. When you have been perfecting your grammar and ‘la voix passive’ for academic journals your whole career, it can be hard to pin down the informalities of speech, the shades of gender, and class, and country, and coming-of-age generation. Slang is often one of the hardest things to write for a character. I have an academic lust for slang. As a scientist, I am almost as interested in memes (cultural analogues to genes that self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures) as I am in genes!

Richard Dawkins, creates memes, becomes meme.

I love big, non-slang words. I love to keep lists of them, and roll them in my mouth, and melt them, and stain my tongue red with them. I love to use words of latin origin when words of regular old german or greek etymology would have done (I’ve been known to use facile instead of easy on occasion.) My writing mentors have warned me about jarring my reader out of the story with superfluous words like décolletage and resplendent. But I can’t help it. I love them so MUCH! I want ‘all the things’ to be polemic, heuristic, jingoistic, pedantic or reviled. I don’t want to sprinkle these words around my writing, truffle like, I want to bludgeon the reader to death with them.

This is a trap for an author. A cloyingly served treacle, to let your reader know. I. AM. CLEVER. Let’s be real. My character is not going to say resplendent. When I make them say these things, my dialogue (and writing) doesn’t crackle with authenticity or authority, the way that say it does in “The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Dundy or “Rule of the Bone” by Russell Banks. (If you haven’t read these books, you MUST!) I think, in its own right, slang is as important to literature as hundred dollar words are to academia.

The Internet is a vast Ellis Island, where our poor, huddled word masses, our writhing, breathing, living language, slang, bubbles up across multi-cultural and socio-economic strata, to be assimilated into everyday use, and eventually even into our dictionaries! Language and word use changes so fast, words rise and fall over night (what we now call “going viral!) that giving a fictional character the right vernacular for this time is a likely to challenge even the experienced dialogue writer.

I can think a few, non-slang words that would have probably never made it out of academic journals into into the limelight if it wasn’t for this viral quality. Words you see everywhere now, like; intersectionality, cultural approbation, trans-racial, ableism.

You are here, at the intersection of class and race

In general, I have noticed a few types of grammar slanging that may help to get the morphemes and phonemes right for your Millennial character.

The cultural phenomenon that is: Because, something, describing someone as “basic” and when you, literally, can’t even.

The verbification of any noun: Internetting, facebooking, tweeting, ‘gramming, googling, vaping, adulting.

There are all the things, and all the feels.

Words that could have made your character seem edgy last week may look like cultural approbation by the time you publish: On fleek, flossing, stunting, swerve, swagga, throwing shade, bye Felicia, ratchet, edges, bae, yasssss.

And of course, several utterances (or interjections) have gone gone viral: Na (bro), Aweeee/uh! meh, eh. Feh, even. There are now ironic, sardonic and sarcastic subtle distinctions between, between ha, haha, heh, and he-he, and Hah! Your Millennial definitely cannot LOL anymore, unless they are instant messaging their mother.

If you are a good enough author to convey vocal fry, then we’ll have an authentic Millennial.

What are your favorite “pop” words? Add to this list in the comments!

Founder www.artcompass.io | Scientist. Teacher. Author.

Founder www.artcompass.io | Scientist. Teacher. Author.