If someone told you to "fade", would you ignore them or guard your wallet? The answer depends not just on who is doing the talking, but when. Joe College in the early 1930's use the term to mean "to leave"; a 1940's zoot-suiter "faded" by covering a bet; it meant "to ignore" in the 1980's hip-hip vernacular; and the youth of the 1990's said something was "fade" when it crimped their style. Simple words–fade, sweet, lamp, dig and cut, to name just a few–change dramatically when incorporated into the slang of each generation. Usually the meanings have nothing to do with the literal definitions of the terms.
So how much of this colorful verbiage should you use in your writing? Slang immediately dates a book, but that's not necessarily bad. Certain words are closely identified with different eras of American history, so slang can place the story quickly into a specific decade. The way a character talks provides a window for the reader into that character's personality, as well as his age and social class. And since slang originates from the youth culture of the time, the words themselves help portray the prevailing attitudes of teens and young adults. Finally, slang can be fun and interesting to read.
Most slang should be confined to characters' dialogue. If the story is told in first person, slang can be sprinkled sparingly throughout the narrative. Use slang when it's necessary to help define a character or show how one character stands out from the rest. Some slang grew out of subcultures, such as the Beat counterculture of the 1950's or the hip-hop culture of the 1980's and 1990's. Specific jargon helped identify members of these groups and alert the members to the presence of outsiders. Other slang is tied to occupations. If your character is a 1934 soda jerk he might respond to the order of "frankfurter with ketchup and a chocolate malt with egg to go" by shouting, "Hemorrhage a Coney Island chicken, twist it, choke it, and make it cackle on wheels" into the kitchen. Such language gives the reader a glimpse into a world that no longer exists.
But be careful not to go overboard. Writing communicates ideas, so you don't want the meaning of the story to get buried under curious figures of speech. In the above example, it may be more important to convey the wisecracking attitude of the soda jerk (and show how he creatively alleviated the boredom of his job) than for the reader to understand exactly what the customer ordered. However, if a pivotal plot point in your 1950's era novel occurs when the main character realizes her best friend is lying, don't have her reveal this to the reader with, "She's lighting up the tilt sign." Slang, along with other traits like clothing and hair style, should be used to add depth to a character and detail to a setting, not to tell the story. Above all, keep your audience in mind.
Having lived through the 1980's, we understand that "I am SO sure!" means just the opposite, but your readers (who weren't even born when Valley Girls hit the scene) might not get the sarcasm. Their only point of reference is the slang of today, so anything from an earlier decade needs to be defined by the surrounding dialogue, gestures or attitude of the speaker, or the reactions of other characters. A "deadly" car in the late 1970's could be awesome or a pile of junk (the word had two meanings). If your reader sees a Porsche drive up before the character nods appreciatively and drawls, "Look at that deadly load!", the dialogue will be easily understood.
This article excerpted from Children's Book Insider, The Newsletter for Children's Writers. Visit now for more info and a special offer.