Science has proven that teenage brains are wired differently from adult brains. For example, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes judgments and controls impulses and emotions, is not fully developed in teenagers. In fact some scientists believe this part of the brain isn’t fully developed until a person is in his 20s, which means that adults make most of their decisions using their frontal lobe and teens make decisions using other parts of the brain. One part of the brain that is fully developed in teens—the pleasure-seeking part of the brain. Why is this information important to a writer? Because it helps us understand what drives teenaged behavior, which in turn will help us better capture how teenagers think, what drives their interactions with their parents and their peers, even other adults. Once you know this, you can better write from a teenager’s perspective. Writing good dialogue is hard. And writing for teenagers is particularly challenging. As writers we need to hear real dialogue, lots of it, to figure out how not to write it. Real dialogue would be painful to read. It’s full of em, um, yeah, you know, like, whatever, argh, er. In other words, real dialogue does not make for good reading. But we have to listen to enough of it to fully understand how subtext and tone and word choice affects fictional dialogue. This is especially true of trying to capture teenage dialect. It’s tempting to just add a lot of likes and whatevers and hope that captures teen angst. (It doesn’t, unfortunately.) If you want an example of nearly pitch perfect teen dialogue, read Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville. The first time I read this book I was amazed at the teenage voice she evokes in just a few lines. This is how the novel starts:
We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job. “I told you to go up there and see what they were doing,” Felicia says. “I told you to go up there,” I reply. (Beard 1)
Remember how embarrassing everything seemed to you as a teenager? The mere fact of being a human in the world had a tinge of embarrassment. The fact that you had parents who were out there walking around in the world doing things like breathing, talking to your friends, and asking you to please be home by curfew was cringe-worthy. My dad took my sister and me to Disneyworld when we were angsty teen girls, and I still remember being mortified every time he wanted to take a picture of us, especially the time he asked us to pose with Mickey Mouse. In all the photos from that trip we are rolling our eyes or grimacing, as if determined to be slightly disdainful of the whole experience, even though it was actually, you know, sort of fun. Look at photos of yourself as a kid and compare them with photos of your teen self. Are you standing differently? More self-conscious looking? How do pictures of you with your friends compare to those of you with your family?
Another good example of teen characterization comes from the novel Choke by Diana Lopez, which chronicles a disturbing trend among teens, the “choking game,” which involves strangling someone until he/she passes out. I heard the author speak about writing this book at a conference a few years ago, and she said that when writing about something worrisome that teens are doing (choking games, drugs, etc.) you have to make it sound appealing (apparently there is an adrenaline rush in the moments before passing out)— without glamorizing it (teens can end up brain-dead from lack of oxygen.) This is how Choke begins:
My middle school has the “in-crowd,” the “out-crowd,” and the “GP.” “GP” stands for “general public,” just like the movie rating. The in-crowd works hard to stay out of the GP, while the out-crowd works hard to get in. I’m definitely GP, general public in every way. (Lopez 1)
This nicely sets up what happens when the protagonist Windy befriends new girl Nina, who is popular, seemingly sophisticated, and the one who ultimately introduces her to the “choking game.”
In The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is narrating from the afterlife after being murdered by her creepy neighbor, Mr. Harvey. Sebold perfectly captures how the teenaged brain is not yet fully developed when Susie recounts how Mr. Harvey lured her into his underground “club house.”
Mr. Harvey asked me if I would like a refreshment. That was how he put it. I said I had to go home. “Be polite and have a Coke,” he said. “I’m sure the other kids would.” “What other kids?” “I built this for the kids in the neighborhood. I thought it could be some sort of clubhouse.” I don’t think I believed this even then. I thought he was lying, but I thought it was a pitiful lie. I imagined he was lonely. We had read about men like him in health class. Men who never married and ate frozen meals every night and were so afraid of rejection they didn’t even own pets. I felt sorry for him. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll have a Coke.” In a little while he said, “Aren’t you warm, Susie? Why don’t you take off your parka?” I did. After this he said, “You’re very pretty, Susie.” “Thanks,” I said, even though he gave me what my friend Clarissa and I had dubbed the skeevies. (Sebold 11)
Something else interesting about the teenaged brain is that it is not properly hardwired to recognize mistakes yet. Adults are better at recognizing mistakes; in clinical studies teenagers often don’t notice that they’ve made a mistake. So even though Susie has a bad feeling about her neighbor, even though he gives her the “skeevies,” she is still reluctant to be rude to him. A grown woman in this situation would probably be better attuned to that voice in her head saying, “Something doesn’t feel right.” But teens are not able to fully tune in to that voice yet, which means they often end up in situations that adults find baffling at best, disturbing and dangerous at worst.
When writing about a teenager it’s also important not to minimize their feelings. I like this passage from Alice Munro’s short story “Some Women” found in her collection Too Much Happiness. Here the thirteen-year-old protagonist is speaking to Roxanne, a loud-mouthed, flirtatious masseuse.
“Now maybe you don’t know about getting a massage, but when you get one, you got to take off all your clothes. Not such a problem when you’re young, but when you’re older, you know, you can get all embarrassed.” She [Roxanne] was wrong about one thing, at least as far as I was concerned. About it not being a problem to take off all your clothes. (Munro 171)
Teens aren’t children and they aren’t adults. They’re trapped in a slippery, in-between time where they still want to believe in magic and clubhouses, and yet they are beginning to see the world differently than they did as children. In Grace Paley’s short story “A Woman, Young and Old” in her collection The Little Disturbances of Man, the fourteen-year-old narrator decides she is in love with (and is going to marry) the roguish and older Captain Brownstar (who she calls “Browny.”)
Then I knew he liked me, because he walked around the table and played with the curls of my home permanent a minute and whispered, “The guys would really laugh, but I get a big bang out of you.” Then I wasn’t sure he liked me, because he looked at his watch and asked it: “Where the hell is Lizzy?” (Paley 22)
Notice how quickly the teenaged mind vacillates from one strong opinion (he likes me!) to the next (he doesn’t like me.) And later on the same page there in this vaguely disturbing passage, which is a good reminder that teen girls are in many ways children trapped in a woman’s body:
I did my best during that passing afternoon to make Browny more friendly. I sat on his lap and he drank beer and tickled me. I laughed, and pretty soon I understood the game and how it had to have variety and ran shrieking from him till he could catch me in a comfortable place, the living-room sofa or my own bedroom. (Paley 22)
For more information of how teen brains work, check out the article “Are teenage brains really different from adult brains?” on the website below: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/teenage-brain1.htm