Want to produce writing that has true staying power? Many writers have heard that including passing fads, slang or even current events will quickly date a novel. You need to make your story relevant to readers, but you don’t want scenes that seem silly or naïve. What was all the rage yesterday is often passe today.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at ways to write about current culture without dating your story:
Stick with Cool
Dialect or slang changes constantly. For YA or teen market writers especially, what the characters say or don’t say can lend credibility or make a story laughable. From “the bee’s knees” of the Flapper era to neat-o beatniks and “rad” skater types, different time periods usually have their own slang.
From Valleygirl “like” to contemporary “perfect,” one slang term that seems to stay relevant is “cool.” I don’t know why, but cool seems to have more staying power than other slang. Even the teenaged mantra, “Whatever,” is now shortened to “whatev.” Yet cool seems to defy becoming old or trite.
If you do try to use slang in a contemporary story, resist the urge to drop gs or use other dialects or unusual spellings. Remember, you don’t want to put anything in your reader’s way. Instead, flavor your dialogue with a word here or there which suggests the slang or dialect.
When you describe characters, try to make them unique and multi-dimensional. Painting characters as an everything’s black Goth, Southern Belle, Proper Englishman or other tropes will make passing fads really stand out. I hope there aren’t many novels out there with characters who wear mullets!
Instead of describing a beehive hairdo, get beyond the surface and show the character’s motivations and deep emotions. Maybe the character does wear a beehive lacquered with Aqua Net, but she does it because she fears not fitting in after a traumatic experience.
By working to make your characters unique, you can help readers understand that they’re reading about someone who is as real as they are, no matter what time period you use.
Some writers think they can cash in on trends by writing whatever is popular. Trouble is, by the time you’ve finished and revised a novel, that trend is often long gone. Some authors do manage to hit an important nerve as it’s happening, (Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is about a pandemic), but most of the time it’s coincidental. Here’s another take on the subject.
Other books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, aren’t recognized for capturing and era (in this case, The Jazz Age) until long after the book is published. Most contemporary novelists should aim for universal truths and write about human relationships rather than a situation which may seem important today but gets lost by the next news cycle.
Perhaps the best way to write a story that has staying power is to delve into the universal emotions, wants and needs, dreams and goals that everyone has. Again, your writing will be more timeless if you’re able to tap into and honestly portray the human condition. For true staying power, make your fiction a genuine reflection of real people of any time and place.