Should You Use Slang In A Novel?

Slang is becoming more widely used in fiction today, but it’s a writing strategy that is fraught with danger. Getting it wrong can make a character seemed forced, or a little fake, which will jar with the reader. Used well though, it can set one character apart from another, as a short hand for their age, interests and level of education. Authors should, however, think carefully about where and when they use slang, and how often.

Nearly everyone has used slang at one time or another, in their daily life. Most of it, we learn as children, when we converse with our peers and try to set ourselves apart from the supposedly dull older generation. And, this can be part of the problem for a writer. If we continue to doggedly use the slang we are most familiar with, it signals the era we were brought up in, which might not necessarily match the characters we are writing about.

In my formative years everything was ‘lush’. This was not a description of my environment, although the word would have summed up the fertile, green hills of Devon quite well. Lush was how my contemporaries and I described anything that pleased our senses. Granted we were a tad indiscriminate with the word, bandying it about for everything from a nice pair of boots to a night out, but hey, such is the world of a provincial teenager.

As a wordsmith, I always listen with fascination to each new interpretation of our language by the next generation and my children have been a great source of research. When they were younger, they went through a phase of repeating text message shorthand as the spoken word. Pretty much anything would be LOL, or inexplicably LOL-fish, should extra emphasis have been required. Over time, the slang they use has evolved. There are some patterns though, such as the reliance on existing words used for an entirely different purpose. Thus ‘sick’ has nothing to do with feeling queasy any more. In today’s world sick is a good thing. In fact, it is the equivalent of lush. Lush sick? Go figure.

There also remains a definite relish in using words which leave the older generation dumbfounded and ‘total pwnage’ is a case in point. I never shy away from asking what these unfamiliar phrases could possibly mean. Then, after being batted away for the old fart I have clearly become, I always look them up. (If you are interested total pwnage appears to be shorthand for something that has been smashed to bits violently, according to Other words to regularly (and often infuriatingly) grace the shores chez Lyons in recent times include treasures such as ‘freakin’, ‘awkward’, and ‘slay’’.

To return to the question though, how much slang should you use in your novel and where is it best used? It really depends upon the nature of the book. I once worked on a non-fiction project with a teenage client, a bright, interesting girl who is clearly destined for bigger things. Early on in the project, I gave some serious reflection to whether I should be improving my knowledge, and possibly use, of teenage slang in order to skilfully use it in the collaboration. After all, the lot of a ghost is to ensure the end product sounds like it was written by the named author and I am big enough to admit my teenage years are a little way behind me now. After some brief consideration, I decided to use teen speak very sparingly. These fashionable words come and go so quickly, the book probably wouldn’t have even been printed before the slang was hopelessly out of date. Nothing can age a book faster than using vast quantities of slang.

It is also so hard to get these words in exactly the right context. Perhaps it is because they are not part of my day-to-day vocabulary, but it just seems that however you try to use slang, the phrases always seem to come out awkward and clunky.

Where slang can work is in short passages of dialogue to place a character in context and define their influences. Thus if a person talked about about ‘dudes’ or ‘getting smashed’ with the ‘guys’ they’d clearly define themselves as an aging hippy, whose sphere of influence stopped in the late 80s. It can be a risky strategy though, because it is a bit of an indefinite science and massively open to misinterpretation. Once again, it can also get quite irritating if used too much.

The last thing an author wants is for the reader to stop short and start getting anxious over the language. (What does this mean? Am I not cool enough to read this book?). Even worse would be a scenario where the reader had to look up what the slang meant. By then the flow of the book will be ruined and the author will have completely lost the attention of their hard-won reader.

So, I’d like to say chill it with the slang, but I won’t because that would probably date me more than I’d like.