Purple Prose + Writing

Teenagers in the Mist

Now that summer is upon us, it’s time to study that oft times misunderstood species: THE TEENAGER.

(Please note: I don’t consider teens to be a separate species. I just wanted to clarify that so no one (teens) take offense.)

Obviously this post is geared towards YA writers, but don’t worry, my research tactics (as used by Jane Goodall (chimpanzees) and Dian Fossey (gorillas)) are applicable to any type of character.

1. Make sure you’ve done your PRE-STUDY homework first. You can’t observe your subject without some prior understanding of their behaviour, mating rituals, group dynamics. Recommended readings include: Teen Stages--The Breakthrough, Year-by-Year Approach to Understanding Your Ever-Changing Teen by Elizabeth & Ken Mellor (and yes, somehow they fit that on the cover--barely) and Dr. Karyn's Guide To The Teen Years by Dr. Karyn Gordon. I strongly recommend the first book for the purpose of writing a YA novel. The added bonus is it's a quick read. The second one has some great example of parents to use if you want to create a dysfunctional family in your novel.

2. All good researchers TAKE NOTES. The trick is not to look obvious about it. And DO NOT take photos or videos without permission. That’s just too creepy, and will likely get you arrested, especially if you’re a guy photographing teenage girls. Seriously, don’t do it.

3. Determine the age group you want to study. A thirteen-year-old girl is at a different developmental stage than a seventeen-year-old female. This is where doing your pre-studying, first, helps.

4. Go to their natural environment where they HANG OUT. This isn’t too hard to figure out. At this time of the year, they’re everywhere.

5. Keep your distance at first. You don’t want to freak them out, right? Observe how they interact with their friends. Fortunately, the more friends they’re with, the louder they get. This is extremely helpful when you are spying observing from a distance.

6. Once you’ve GAINED THEIR TRUST (and they don’t look like they’re going to charge at you in an aggressive manner), approach with caution. Dian Fossey had a brilliant technique for this: don’t make eye contact. By keeping your head cocked to the side, and examining that uber-cool top you just discovered, you can approach without setting off any alarms. If the teen makes an indication SHE’s going to bolt, then STAY STILL, and continue to observe on the sly. If HE looks like he’s going to charge, then BACK AWAY slowly while still avoiding eye contact.

7. Listen to what the teens say and how they say it. STUDY their non-verbal gestures. Especially study their non-verbal gestures within their species (BFF, boyfriend, etc) and with individuals of other species (parents). They are especially skilled at looking bored while spending quality time with their family being dragged around by their parents.

8. Go to the places where your main character would hang out. For example, if your character is into Goth, then chances are good she doesn’t hang out in a ballet studio. THOUGH it would be super cool if she did.

9. All good researchers know you have to be careful about GENERALIZATIONS. Teens are individuals. What one teen does is not necessarily applicable to all teens. The more teens you study, the better off you’ll be.

I hope that helps you in your quest to write authentic teens and their dialogue in your YA novel. And don’t forget to study—in addition to studying teens in their natural habitats—their books, TV shows, movies, etc. You’ll gain a wealth of info that way.


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Teenagers in the Mist + Writing