Young adult fiction is one of the most commonly read categories of fiction around. Despite its namesake, which implies writing exclusive to a particular age group, successful YA fiction is read and indulged in by many other age groups and tends to have a tremendously passionate following.
When it comes to writing YA, it can be easy to underestimate the task. Casual readers may assume that all YA writing is simple, all its plots juvenile. However, in the majority of cases, this just isn't true.
YA fiction contains far more freedom than restriction, and as far as plots are concerned, YA fiction is able to explore just as many complex ideas as any other form. Some even argue that much of today's YA can blend into the realm of adult fiction, with the added benefit of having a larger and more impressionable audience.
While many young adult novels can make an incredible mark in literary history, others may leave your readers unimpressed, simply blending into the background of a highly saturated category. To avoid being left behind as a YA writer, here are a few tips and points of focus to keep in mind when writing your story.
1. Write from the right perspective
Perspective is a basic and incredibly crucial part of any young adult piece of writing. The point of view from which your story is told plays a vital role in how the book will be received and related to by readers.
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, for example, uses first-person present-tense perspective, reaffirming the notion that young people tend to act on instinct, while also giving the text a fast-paced flair.
Present tense also furthers tension and puts readers into the POV character’s mindset, as the future is just as uncertain to us as it is to the character.
However, the notion of perspective in YA does not exclusively refer to which person or tense you use; most importantly, it refers to your characters themselves. Generally speaking, your story should be told from the perspective of a teenage protagonist, which is usually what categorises the book as 'young adult'.
As an adult, one of the most difficult parts of writing in a teenage voice is trying to get back into that mindset. Once you leave your teenage years, your way of thinking tends to change drastically and permanently.
Be wary that you aren't writing as an older character in retrospect (this is why present tense can sometimes be useful to get you into the right mindset). Try to maintain some sense of the irrational emotion and instinctive reactions experienced by teenagers, rather than writing from a more thoughtful, 'adult' perspective.
Young adults tend to be a lot more emotionally driven, and will be a lot more temperamental. When in the mindset of your character, try to remove any adult-like inhibitions and have your characters act of their own accord.
If you're having trouble, try looking back on pivotal moments in your teenage years and consider how you reacted at the time. Think about moments that have left an imprint on your life, remember how you acted and reacted as a teenager, and consider how you would act differently now.
Better yet, go through old diary entries or writing of your own, or study teenage-popular areas like parks and shopping centres and watch how young adults act. There are plenty of practices that will help you get back into that teenage voice.
2. Be mindful of the language you're using
For young adult fiction, it’s often assumed that a much more basic vocabulary and language will be used. While this can be useful in certain instances, keep in mind you can still write in more complicated language, provided you do it well.
The most important thing is not to condescend to your audience. A lot of YA readers relish the discovery of new and unfamiliar words in their reading and enjoy finding out the meaning for themselves.
However, it's also vital to still be mindful of your character’s own voice. At every point in your story, particularly if you're writing in first person, you should be asking yourself, ‘Would a person of this age really say that/act in that way?’ This is also where the importance of perspective comes back into play.
For a stand-alone book, you will be sticking with a regular language for your readers. However, in the instance you may be writing a series, it is understandable as well as useful to see your character’s language and way of thinking grow and change, especially when your audience is also ageing.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series spans seven years of our protagonist Harry's life. Being between the ages of 11 and 17, growth in character and language is inevitable. As an 11-year-old boy, Harry has basic levels of education and is yet to reach puberty, meaning his inner monologues will still be fairly juvenile.
As a 15 to 17-year-old, however, Harry is in the major stages of hormonal change, and is undergoing more complex emotions. His language becomes more retrospective and thoughtful, and he becomes overly confused with wanting to feel like an adult while still being seen as a child. Throughout the books, Harry's language, especially in terms of his inner thoughts, becomes far more complex.
It’s also important to remember that, to a certain extent, the age of your protagonist is going to reflect a general idea of a reader’s age. While older readers will be present, you should not only be asking yourself whether a character of that age would speak like that, but also whether a reader who is your protagonist's age would be able to easily comprehend the writing.
Language and perspective go hand in hand, so once you have a perspective down-pat, the language you use should flow a lot more naturally.
3. Explore character progression and growth throughout the story
Characters in YA fiction are at a point in their lives where they are constantly growing. Your protagonist is going to be learning new things at every turning point and complication. It could be argued that YA fiction is one of the most prominent literary categories in terms of character progression.
While language may only slightly change through the span of say, one book, character growth will change dramatically. Your protagonist is guaranteed to be having new experiences and changing as a person along the way.
With that said, while some experiences may be a normal occurrence to an adult, teenagers will take those same moments as learning opportunities, and your story should express that. Create moments in your story where a character has a chance to grow. Explore childish fights between two friends, or awkward moments with parents. Each moment should be brand new.
Teenage years are a period for firsts, and regardless of genre, should be represented in your story. You may find yourself unsure about a scene because it may be unfamiliar to you or strange to describe, but these moments – whether it be a first kiss or a first experience with death – will start the groundwork for your characters' growth.
Ask yourself as well as your peers what points in their teenage years made a great impact on them (anything from a new job to the formation or loss of a friendship), and try working some of the insights you gain into your own story. Experiment and brainstorm with different events to help your character grow.
Character progression is all about significant moments and showing your readers how these can have an impact on a person for the rest of their lives. In a sense, it's a fantastic way to spark your reader's memory of what made them change as people over time.
4. Be careful with plot and form
YA fiction tends to be far more plot-driven than experimental or contemplative. However, as the base for a well-received YA piece is the emotion and sense of relatability it can draw from its audience, an overly complex or confusing plot may cause the story to be too cluttered, drawing attention away from what’s important.
That said, fast-paced plots work wonders in YA fiction. Don’t spend too much time focusing on minute details, literary musings, or overly complex scenes and dialogue. Your focus should be the emotional drive pulling your story, as well as your interesting characters. Be aware of what fascinates people most with YA fiction, and stick with that.
This isn't to say don't write for yourself, but rather to keep in mind what is most important in your story. If you have chosen to write from the perspective of a teenager, you've chosen a path with particular parameters, and thus need to accommodate for that.
In every moment of your story, consider the following:
- What does this scene or plot point bring to the story?
- Is this conversation crucial to the development of the characters?
- How can my character grow in this scene, and what are they learning?
- Is there an emotional drive in the scene?
If you can't see these questions being answered in each plot point, it might be time to reconsider. This could be a simple matter of cutting out unnecessary parts, which, in the end, will help give you a more easily readable and succinct piece of writing, instead of one that may drag on and lose readers' interest.
John Green’s books are well-known for their interesting and complex characters. While the plot of each novel remains fairly simple, it is the characters that truly drive the books. Green's writing is an example of the plot's purpose being to drive the characters into growing.
Despite Green’s stories being from the ‘real world’, and less fast-paced than, say, a YA fantasy novel, it is the minimalism of his plots that gives us a window into the emotional truth of the narrator and characters, which is what many YA readers love.
Simply put, it's important not to overthink and complicate your plot and form, just because you think it might make the story stand out more. Remember, for a lot of people, YA fiction is a way to unwind from other more complex or 'literary' fiction that can be a bit of a headache. So don’t feel too worried about not being ‘deep’ or experimental enough.
5. Include plenty of tension and conflict
Conflict in young adult fiction is crucial, and should not be underestimated. This doesn’t merely refer to the importance of a novel’s overarching conflict, but also the underlying and sometimes less prevalent points of the story that act as major turning points, especially for teenage characters.
There are many ways that you can include additional conflict in story, from relationships, to issues with identity, to characters adapting to change. Your options are almost limitless when it comes to exploring conflict through teenage characters.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, in addition to the overarching conflict between good and evil, Rowling includes the famous conflicts between Harry and fellow Hogwarts student Draco Malfoy, as well as the spiteful Professor Snape. While these characters don’t always act as the main sources of conflict and tension, they work wonders in creating turning points, character progression, and that wonderful YA emotional truth.
In Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, our protagonist, Jacob, has a difficult relationship with his parents, who believe him to be mentally unwell. In this case, the tension between Jacob and his family leads him astray, and sets in motion the final conflict of the book.
Regardless of genre, both these fantasy series contain real-world conflict. As it’s advised to keep your text plot-driven and emotive, these conflicts become essential in the development of your story. And remember, with tension and conflict, there are usually resolutions.
The points of tension and conflict you set up in your novel will give you a greater opportunity to elaborate and expand on your characters throughout the rest of your book, or even later books in your potential series. As mentioned, teenagers are undergoing a period of countless turning points and changes, and a number of conflicts will only further reinforce that sense of truth and understanding in your story.
When deciding how you can build conflict and tension in your YA fiction, consider what conflicts drove you as a teenager – or better yet, ask friends or teenagers you know to help you brainstorm.
Writing young adult fiction may be viewed by some as an ‘easy project’. However, once you begin writing YA, you'll find that this is not the case. The most important factor to remember is to not to take YA as an easy way out, or to underestimate it as anything less than a rich and important literary form.
The emotional drive of YA fiction is what truly separates it from other stories, and it is clear why so many people identify with it. It’s the ability of these texts to inherently understand and explore the emotions of humans that makes them such an enjoyable journey.
Keep your characters complex, your emotions high and your conflict enticing, and you'll be well on your way to a great piece of YA fiction.