10 tips for writing young adult (YA) fiction that's true to the adolescent experience
Young adult (YA) fiction is a unique, modern form of narration that appeals to readers of all ages. Since its establishment, YA narrative has grown in popularity to become a commonly read and appreciated category of novel. But what exactly is young adult? And how do you write a YA perspective in an authentic, marketable way?
YA stories are told by or about protagonists between the ages of 12 and 18 in a way that would be appropriate for readers of the same age group. The genre is unique in its accessibility to a wide audience because, while the content often interests adults, the language and perspective are written for adolescents. But with finesse and a good understanding of what is appropriate for young audiences, the subject matter can take on any topic.
Let’s discuss 10 tips to help you write a great young adult novel and how to write an authentic YA perspective, even if you’re well past the age of 18.
Young adult novels require a protagonist between the ages of 12 and 18, but it’s not enough to make their age match. To write an authentic YA perspective, the conflict has to be relevant to adolescent struggles. Whether your hero is traversing the continent to save the world or working through the everyday adversities of what it takes to be in high school, universal challenges teens all face include death, growing up, first love, and establishing a moral compass. These are important to reflect within the YA narrative no matter how extraordinary the circumstances of the adventure. For example, even while Harry Potter faces an imminent confrontation with Lord Voldemort, he lives with abuse from his aunt and uncle and must cope with the inexplicable loss of his parents.
2. Point of View
When writing young adult, choose your point of view carefully. First-person present tense is the most common POV because it allows a more immediate, limited point of view that excludes the adult perspective. This allows for a subjective viewpoint that young adults have due to their lack of life experience. Close third person perspective is also a common point of view in YA because it serves a similar purpose while offering a bit of distance between the reader and narrator to allow for a broader perspective. Suzanne Collins utilizes the first-person present-tense narration beautifully to demonstrate Katniss’s immediacy of thought and action with less reflection over the course of events.
As you set the pace, consider your timing. Time feels different for younger people. One year can seem like a long time when that makes up a twelfth of your life. As such, the timeline of your story should match the age group. If your characters get into an argument, they might not talk to one another for weeks. But very few teenagers would maintain a cold shoulder for years. Same goes for attraction. A relationship that lasts more than a month in high school could be considered long term. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, Scout remarks that a day is 24 hours but feels much longer.
Consider your use of language, both in formality and propriety. Teens are less concerned with proper grammar, so employing a casual tone will make your narration more authentic. But also consider your vocabulary. Young adults are less likely to use graphic and explicit language because they are still being taught to avoid curse words and speak politely. That being said, curse words can become more potent within the YA narrative, demonstrating an extreme emotion or the character’s rebellion to societal expectation. In “The Outsiders,” S. E. Hinton exemplifies both the casual language of a teenager as well as the type of inappropriate language they might use or refuse to use depending on their personality.
Make your characters complex. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean your protagonist should have any less depth. In truth, adolescent narrators can be less consistent in their desires or logic because of their growth and adaptability. Developing complex characters with convoluted or fluctuating needs and responses will make them more true to life. Think of Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye.” While he’s cynical and jaded, he’s also sensitive and can be quite kind. Character Growth
Personal growth of young adult characters is key to the concept of the YA category. “Coming of age” is a consistent theme in these books, and with that comes growth and development. No teenager is the same person at 18 as they were at age 12, and as such, part of what makes the YA perspective so interesting is how much the characters can grow. The eponymous Artemis Fowl, for example, in Eoin Colfer’s books, is a brilliant young criminal who finds his moral compass while uncovering the reason behind his father’s disappearance.
6. Past Experience
Stay relevant to your characters’ experiences. These dictate their perspective and worldview, which can be skewed because of a teenager’s lack of experience. Nonetheless, their reality is what matters, so keep in mind what your character might know or not know when they confront situations. Stanley Yelnats from “Holes” is a wonderful example of a character whose perception shifts as his experiences alter his life’s course.
Delve into emotional truth. The world of a teenager is largely driven by emotion and emotional responses. Young emotion can seem far more potent before you experience something multiple times and know what to expect. That’s true for a lot of different experiences, and developing the emotional response your young adult characters have is important to understanding the YA point of view. Think of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky, where each character experiences the pain and joy of young love and growing up.
Every YA book should have an optimistic, hopeful ending. Of course, not all turn out happy, but the resilient perspective of the young mind lends itself to hope for a better future. This means finding the good in things even when taking on challenging content, like Louise Gornall does in “Under Rose-Tainted Skies.”
When writing YA, use words economically. Descriptions are often less verbose and the story more plot-driven because the intent is to be succinct and engaging. With younger readers especially, attention spans can vary, so part of appealing to a wider audience entails telling the story in a more fast-paced, thrilling way. Young adult novels tend to range from 50,000 to 80,000 words while adult novels average around 70,000 to 120,000 words.
It might be tempting to keep the subject matter lighter and less potent for a young adult audience, but it’s okay to take on the heavy stuff. YA literature has taken on topics ranging from the Holocaust to cancer, child abuse to suicide. No topic is too dark, so long as it is handled in an appropriate way. It’s about interpreting the event through young eyes. Markus Zusak does a wonderful job of this in “The Book Thief.”
In young adult literature, it’s important to see the world from an adolescent perspective. Think about their interpretation of the world and how that might differ from an adult’s. YA is good for challenging expectations as well as provoking readers’ thoughts because you can address poignant issues through the eyes of more innocent and emotional characters. Consider these 10 tips when developing your young adult perspective. And don’t hesitate to find your inner-teen. Think back on your experiences and draw from those.
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