• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Writing for Teens: Dialogue Inspirations by Alex Wheatle

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Alex Wheatle

Alex Wheatle

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When I create a teenage character for a fictional piece of work, my first priority is to give that young person an engaging, entertaining and fresh voice.  I surround my laptop with post-its that tell me to avoid BBC newsreader and political spiel – what cool teen would want to connect with a first person narrator who employs the language of a politician debating Brexit on a Sunday morning programme?  Before I even sat down to write the first sentence of Liccle Bit, the first of my Crongton series, I had already decided that the first person narrative would be like no other.  Whether readers or reviewers liked it or not, I wanted them to finish the book or even a chapter and at least say, ‘that was a different reading experience.’

In my literary tool bag, I have collected cool phrases, slang from all corners of the UK and beyond, slices of dialogue from a variety of sources that include hip hop culture, reggae dancehall culture, Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 1950s and even quotes that I have overheard on a train journey from Glasgow to Inverclyde.

The point I’m trying to make is that to discover an original voice, we must develop a keen ear and search high and low in all art forms (not just novels) and be alert to current trends of youth culture and banter.  For me, emphasis is definitely on the everyday banter.  I was quite fortunate to have worked in a youth club where I was always entertained with fantastically witty interactions and word-play.

Slang can date quite quickly so at times we must be innovative and brave enough to create our own phrases and words that will enrich our characters and our storytelling.  All the great writers including Shakespeare, Tolkien and JK Rowling have achieved this to great effect.

Once I have created the main protagonist’s voice, I work on other characters where I add nuances and idiosyncrasies to their own particular language.  They are like branches and twigs to the main trunk and engine of the narrative voice.  In my Crongton series, dialogue and voice fuel my storytelling so I spend as much time on these aspects as a literary writer would perfecting their prose.

I try not to be too self-satisfied of what I have achieved.  When I addressed the blank page of Crongton Knights, the second novel in the Crongton series, I wanted to push my linguistic boundaries that little further, create new phrases and words and offer something a little different to the reader.  It’s something I learned from my DJ days in Brixton: what entertained the masses last week might not enthuse a week later.

Kerb Stain Boys is my most inventive piece of fiction to date and is written in a film noir style that pays homage to the great writers that I admire that include Raymond Chandler, John Hughes, Billy Wilder and David S Ward.  It’s no accident that the aforementioned authors have all penned screenplays.  Novelists are more often than not to snobby in their inspirations for their writing, especially good dialogue and their work suffers from it.

For me, riveting discourse that propels the story along is just as important as prose, so when I watch an excellent movie or a play, I’m there with my mental notepad and pen writing down what lines of dialogue that have the greatest impact, made me laugh loudest or think hardest.

As I mentioned before, to truly master this difficult art of storytelling, we must study all its art forms and learn from them.

(c) Alex Wheatle

About Kerb Stain Boys:

Life on the Crongton estate can be rough for Briggy. Dad’s lost his job, Mum’s working so hard to make ends meet, and big brother Kingsley just wants out. With all of the shouting and arguing it’s difficult not to get lost in the mix. So when his best mate Terror and coolest chick in the year Caldonia, cook up a plan to make a quick buck, Briggy hopes this time it might be his chance to shine. Robbing the Post Office … what could go wrong? A brilliantly real and funny novella of life on one of London’s toughest (fictional) estates.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alex Wheatle is the best-selling author of several books including the modern classic Brixton Rock, and the multi-award winning Crongton series. He was awarded an MBE for his services to literature in 2008, has been twice nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and has won numerous awards including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

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