Youth, slang and subculture in writing

Boyz N The HoodI have this friend who works as a script doctor and he told me a story about a screenplay that he had worked on which was to be partly funded by a well known British institution. The story was about a dysfunctional and violent teenager that is involved in gang activity, but manages to turn his life around.

My friend tells me that the film was funded mainly because the writer had real experience in ‘dealing with these kinds of people’ having worked in the council of one of London’s roughest boroughs, and could thus provide an ‘authentic glimpse’ into what it was like to grow-up in a deprived area, to be poor, to be thrust into a life of drugs, crime, and eventually murder – which is a bit like saying, “I’m really interested in the minds of serial killers but I work in Tesco and have no psychology experience but I’m going to be a self-employed detective because I’ve watched every episode of CSI.” Okay, maybe that is a loose and extreme analogy, but the point I was trying to make was the writer of the screenplay probably had no experience in writing or any interest in it, but decided that he would put pen to paper because he felt like he had a story in him. Which is fair enough. But his right to write does not necessarily mean that he has the right to call himself a writer – in my opinion of course.

So my friend goes on to tell me about the script. He says that the story had a copy-and-paste narrative detailing a boy in a gang that tries to turn his life around but is eventually killed in the end, just as he is on the cusp of a better future (for the record, the film was released in 2006 and went straight to DVD, probably sectioned under Boyz n the Hood Clone).

Among the list of problems that led to the film’s dire rating on IMDB, the biggest contributing factor to the film’s aesthetic downfall was the dialogue. Imagine a middle-aged man from a middle class family attempting to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old gang member. There was a lot of “innit man” and ‘words like blood’ (for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, blood is the colloquial word for pal, friend, buddy etc, often used in greeting) throughout.

Conversely, even amidst the plethora of films that are released in the UK that are written by young urbanites from scary estates whose viewpoint would also be deemed authentic due to their geography, you will find the same awful, forced dialogue and insistence on slang. What happens is that instead of the film or writing having some sort of meaningful social commentary, it becomes a parody that triggers the cringe reflex.

Now I’m not saying that people can’t write from other perspectives that are completely foreign to their own. As a writer, it is my duty to invent characters and explore different viewpoints, people from other races, sexes, religions, cultures, and so on. But you have to know what to use and when to use it otherwise you end up writing a stereotype and a hideous cliché.

For one of my creative writing modules back at university, we had a lesson on being able to identify clichés within genres, the lesson being that it would help you avoid them in your writing. So if I wrote a story now and included “she heard a bloodcurdling scream,” it’s safe to assume that the educational system failed me. (Note: It is not my opinion that a creative writing degree makes you a good writer.)

Anyway, in my opinion, the way to avoid writing dialogue that makes your skin cringe off your body is to avoid slang completely, or use it sparingly. Slang constantly changes and can make your work seem dated extremely quickly if you go to town on it. One could argue that the use of modern slang makes a piece authentic, which I suppose is correct. But who would want to read it? If you were into chick lit but the character continued to use phrases like “OMG that was totes amazeballs, he was such a hottie,” you would probably vomit blood, even if you were just after a mindless read while you lay by a pool on holiday.

Here’s a true story, one of many from my ailing would-be career as a writer. Recently I was working on writing my own screenplay with a friend who happened to be quite connected in the film business. We decided to craft a nice tight treatment and a detailed beat sheet before we actually began working on the bones of the script. The film idea was about a man who gets caught outside during the London riots and battles through the streets to make his way home to his heavily pregnant girlfriend (of course we took liberties with the actual facts of the riots to suit our narrative and make it more exciting). The film was in no way intended to be a ‘street film’ but more of a thriller in the same vein as something like The Warriors (1979) or a low budget Escape from New York (1981). So my friend shows it to a filmmaker she knows and his response was rather than call the film Riot Night, as originally planned, we should call it Riotz. I interpreted this as “Well, if you play it safe and really hype up all the seemingly fashionable elements such as it being set in London and the gang activity, and if we spell the title incorrectly it will emphasise the street credibility of this particular product and thus, be easier to fund.”

Needless to say the project fizzled out. I guess the most important aspect of this piece is, if you can’t spot a cliché, you’re bound to become one.


Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.