I’ve always been dubious about using slang in writing.
Slang has to be one of the trickest things to write. Done well, it gives the material a sense of up-to-the-minute modernity – it adds colour and an authentic feel, if that’s what you’re after. It adds place. What would a story about Cockneys be if it didn’t have at least a hint of the patter?
But there are a few problems. Slang is transient – the words spread organically – these days, sometimes very quickly – and nothing dates faster than yesterday’s buzzword or yesterday’s usage.
That’s hard to avoid even when sci-fi writers try to create a sense of social future by coining it. E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s writing was full of coined slang – which was fine, but he did it on the principle of ‘different but not too different’ – a very sensible approach that gives the audience a feel of novelty without total alien-ness. But it also means that, today, Smith’s slang has a very ‘period’ feel.
The onus is also on writers to get it right if they’re putting together a period story. Cockney rhyming slang, for instance, has changed quite a bit in the last century. And if you get it wrong, somebody’s bound to spot it.
Someone who got it right was George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman stories were filled with authentic nineteenth century middle-class/officer slang (‘fig’, for instance, meaning ‘uniform’; ‘plunger’, meaning ‘yuppie’, and don’t ask me what ‘poonts’ are.) Fraser nailed it to the point where at least one reviewer believed Fraser’s absurd conceit that the stories were a genuine ‘found memoir’ (penned by Harry Flashman, the bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.)
However, Fraser had a very special talent and it’s rare to see such a spot-on effort.
The other issue is quantity. A book filled with slang becomes hard to parse: the reader has to constantly ‘translate’.
My answer – solving both problems – is that it’s better to hint at the presence rather than blast it full-on into the story.
Yup – judicious slang! Enough to give the flavour and sense that slang’s about – adding the necessary colour – but not enough to derail the reading experience or create a fast-dating story that nobody’ll want in a year or two.
Do you add slang to your writing?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016