Writing Nowadays–Teens and Texting for YA Writers

Continuing our series on what writers of YA fiction need to know about schools . . .

Writing Nowadays–Teens and Texting

Every so often I read a YA book written in the post-text era in which the author ignores texting.  Some TV shows do the same thing.  Argh!  Even if you, a card-carrying old fart, personally hate texting and willfully remain ignorant of how it works, you can’t simply ignore it when you’re writing about modern teenagers.  It won’t fly.

Here’s some of what’s going on.

Any teen whose family can afford it has a cell or smart phone with texting on it.  Parents who didn’t text before they had a teenager are usually lured into it once their children become teens.  Teens text literally hundreds of times a day.  Not dozens–hundreds.  They text more than they talk.  Adults are often cautious about giving out their cell phone number, but teens usually give theirs freely, even on-line.  My students complain bitterly about the number of junk texts and sales calls they get on their phones, and they don’t seem to make the connection between this problem and handing their number out indiscriminately.

Whether we adults think this is a bad idea or not DOESN’T MATTER.  The teens themselves like it that way.  If you thinks it’s dreadful, that’s fine, but KEEP IT OUT OF YOUR WRITING.  You’ll alienate your teen readers, who’ll feel like you’re lecturing them about the evils of texting.

Teens feel their phone is a part of them.  If they lose or misplace it, they get panicky, like an adult who loses the car keys while on vacation.  They usually save all their text messages and photos, which means the phone has many personal things on it and makes it an extension of themselves.

When their phones buzz or beep or burble with a message, they jump to read it.  If they can’t do so right away (in class or during a family meal, for example), it nags at them, and they’ll risk losing the phone in class to check.  To them, the message is potentially of enormous importance, even though they know bloody well it’s going to be nothing more than “We meeting at lunch?” or “Hey, cutie!  Thinking of you.”

Teenagers are extremely reluctant to turn their phones off or be away from them.  What if someone texts or calls and I don’t answer?  The sender/caller might get angry with me!  Or it might be important!  (Remember that what an adult sees as important is NOT the same as what a teen sees as important.  If you can’t make this work without sounding condescending, don’t write YA fiction.)  This means, for example, that teens are quite willing to read and answer texts that come at 3 a.m.  They may be annoyed that a friend woke them at an ungodly hour, but they’ll still read and answer the text.  Also, teens who sleep through a blaring alarm clock will leap awake at the soft buzz of an incoming text.  (A tip to parents who have trouble waking their teens on school mornings: send them a text.)  The idea of an incoming text keeps teens on high alert.

With the advent of full keyboards and self-correcting smart phones, shortened text-speak (“RU” for “are you”) is disappearing.  “K” for “okay” is an exception.  Puncuation, however, is still gleefully ignored.

Abbreviations for long phrases are still around: WTF, WTH, ILY/ILU (I love you).  My students were startled to discover that I knew what “DTF?” stands for.  (Google it.)

Before texting, teens and pre-teens wrote each other long letters in which they complained how much they hated writing, folded the papers into tight triangles, and flicked them to each other in the cafeteria.  I found two or three a day on my classroom floor.  Today, I find none.  Texting has destroyed paper notes.  Any writer who uses them risks reader belief!

Teens have their own etiquette for texting.  It’s wildly unfair and uneven, and it reflects the often self-centered thinking that comes with being a teenager.  The basic rules are:

1. All texts I send must be answered within five minutes. If the person doesn’t answer, it means a) the receiver is angry at me; b) the receiver doesn’t care about me; or c) the receiver hates me.  There is no d) the receiver wasn’t able to read or respond just yet or e) the text doesn’t require a response.

2. Somone who gets mad that I myself didn’t return a text within five minutes is a jerk who needs to get a life. The fact that this contradicts rule #1 doesn’t matter.

3.  Unnecessary one-word or one-letter texts are universally loathed.  (“You coming?” “Yes” “K”)

4. My own one-word texts are an exception to rule #3

5. No one should text and drive.  It isn’t safe.

6.  I can text and drive because I’m an expert texter who sends hundreds of texts a day and can read and send a text in just a few seconds.  (This rule is particularly scary.)

The trick for a writer is to get your main character to follow these rules and remain likeable.  Me, I’d ignore #6.

Teens rarely hesitate to get intimate on their cell phones.  Although a recent study showed that sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or photos) is far less prevalent than adults previously thought, teens do happily send other personal and intimate details about their lives through text message, messages the senders rarely delete.  It rarely occurs to them that someone else might find or steal a phone, or that they might have a falling out with the receiver, who could then show or otherwise publicize some truly embarrassing material.  (This can be a interesting plot point in a book.)

The instant communication era makes it really hard in, say, an adventure novel to get your protagonist into trouble.  It’s really hard to justify why, in a life-or-death situation, your character doesn’t simply reach for her phone and dial 911 and wreck all suspense.  “My parents will kill me” or “I want to solve this myself” don’t make much sense if your life is on the line.  It might make some sense in smaller situations, like a teenager who snuck out of the house to go to a party which got raided by the police, and said teen fled the scene only to get stranded far from home with no ride.  Call Mom for help?  Ho, ho, ho!  But that’s not life-threatening.

In any case, this is why authors are forever having their protagonists forget their cell phones (which teens do fairly often), drop them, break them, or let them run out of power.  It’s getting harder to believe the “I can’t get a signal” line, but it works in some circumstances.

If you just can’t bring yourself to write about a teen who texts, you’re frankly going to run into some problems.  First, an awful lot of your readers just won’t believe you.  A few might go along for the ride, but most will roll their eyes and mutter, “A book written by a stupid adult who doesn’t get it.”  So you’ll have to work extra hard.  A teen who refuses to text on principal (“I hate texting, okay?  Just leave me alone”) is a hard sell these days.  A slightly easier sell is the teen whose parents refuse to buy the kid a cell phone, either due to low income or because they believe the teen needs to find a job and pay for it him/herself, though that’s still kind of hard–additional lines to a family plan are really, really cheap, and almost all parents prefer to be able to get in touch with their teen right away.

If your teen comes from an unusual background, you can get away with it.  The family may not allow cell phones for religious reasons or for other personal objections.  However, this is like a family that refuses to travel by car or train, so it should be a major plot and/or character bit.

What have you observed about teens and texting?

Next time: school security

–Steven Harper Piziks


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Writing Nowadays–Teens and Texting for YA Writers — 11 Comments

  1. Man, someone texted me at 1:30 AM once, and I was so, impossibly, hugely pissed, and then I had a nightmare where he texted me again, at 3, and woke me up, and I Hated Him.
    Actually, thinking about it in context, I’m pretty sure he was a firm believer in Teen Text Etiquitte. The fact that he was 28 made him come off as not exactly compos-mentis.

  2. There is a carryover into other contemporary fiction as well. When was your character born? What music did they listen to when they were teenagers? What were the common names? What did they wear?

    In the 80s I read a contemporary romance about a woman going to her high school reunion (20 year) and rekindling an old flame. The problem was, she described her high school years as poodle skirts and Elvis and penny loafers. In other words, she described HER high school memories, not those of someone who was in high school a mere ten years later–bell bottoms, tie-dye, Hendrix and peace.

    I found I couldn’t read it at all. Because she should have been writing about MY high school years, not hers.


  3. Teens and beginning college age. (My son, just turning 20, is a texting maniac.If his girlfriend texts the most inane thing, he would stop his own heart surgery to reply “Whassup?)

  4. When my son had his wisdom teeth out, they gave him anesthesia (gas). He was lying in the recovery room, barely conscious, and texting everybody he knew.
    In my class once I had an older guy, a retiree, who was Finally Writing His SF Novel. He insisted on writing about Teens In Space. It was painful; all the younger students pointed out that the characters were NOT going to phone each other. I suggested making it a -historical- novel, setting it in its natural milieu of 1962 or so. The alternative would be a painful and just about impossibly difficult mountain of research on current teen practices — doubly difficult because of the age of the author. (“Mom! this creepy old guy wants to see my texts!” “I’m phoning 911, honey — your father is on the way!”)

  5. Texting and complex negotiations don’t mix, which is probably why my younger daughter likes them. “Can I stay out until 1?” leads to “No. You have work tomorrow.” “But I’ve been in all week.” “Still have work tomorrow.” “Mom, you have to let me make my own decisions.” And on. Somewhere in the fourth or fifth exchange, I generally stop typing except to say “CALL ME.” Taken off line, the negotiation can be resolved pretty quickly; via text it takes forever.

  6. I know a couple in their 20s who refuse to answer the phone or email, but the moment you send either one a text, you get an immediate response. As an old fart (only in my early 30s, but I sure feel like one in this instance), I keep thinking, this conversation would take 1/10th the time if you just phoned me!

    Of course, I know the main reason they prefer texts. They’re easier to sneak in the middle of work or school than a phone call, and it’s easier to have “secret” conversations (even though it leaves that ton of personal information on the phone itself).

  7. Eep. I’ve been trying to sidestep this issue. My protag is a friendless outcast who lives with her relatively hands-off father, and they don’t have a lot of extra money. I could write in a phone– the antagonist would just take it and destroy it so she couldn’t use it– but it was easier just to say she didn’t have one and leave it at that. Hope that’s believable!

  8. I know some people who cannot afford a cell phone for their teen daughter — they are recent immigrants to this country and working at minimum-wage jobs. The girl is desolate, and I can see that the lack of one is probably cutting her off from a great deal of social interaction.

  9. Mary–Snarf!

    K–It can be believable, and in the way you’ve presented it. Not all families can afford cell phones. If you make the lack of money part of her character, it’ll fly. Most teens would feel uncomfortable or embarrassed that they don’t have something all (or nearly all) their peers do, and she would feel cut off from her friends. Hell, she =would= be cut off from her friends, since they’d be talking and texting to each other and she’d be left out, even if it were inadvertent.

  10. It really is amazing how fast things have changed in teen world. The novel I wrote five years ago is seriously outdated, and updating it will take some serious thinking about plot and character interactions.

    Thank you for this series. It’s pure YA-writing gold.