By Kris Maze
Young Adult novels have come a long way from the classics we read in school. Novels like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye were first accepted into the newly coined category, Young Adult (YA) in the 1960’s. While YA literature focuses on adolescence and coming of age stories, it can span any genre and follows the rules within those types of writing.
YA also appeals to multi-generations of readers, evolving from the single-problem stories of an after school special to the mega-blockbusters we see today. One thing is for sure: readers of all ages are gobbling up these stories.
Writers today have questions about how this multifaceted category works, and whether their novel is actually YA. Below are tips to help you answer these questions. (Plenty of examples and ways to enhance your current story are included.)
How To Know if You Are Writing YA
Do you have a story featuring a young protagonist? One topic writers ask about is how to create a YA book editors will swoon for. Although this book category is defined by the age of the protagonist (between 12 and 18 years old), writing a YA novel is way more involved than a number. Working through the following questions may reduce the confusion and help you identify whether your novel is considered Young Adult.
What is your character’s age?
The age indicates which shelf your book sells from in bookstores or Amazon accounts, but not always. Most publishers say YA stories have protagonists between the ages of 14 to 18, or the time they would be in high school. Sometimes the lower end dips to a younger age, but then it overlaps with Middle Grade. A book with an older Main Character (MC) experiencing first milestones such as an apartment, job, or serious romance tends to be in the New Adult (NA) category. The difference then becomes the content and tone of the story as to the intended audience.
Age drives how your character acts, and what they are able to do. The MC’s age has to intertwine with the purpose of the character’s age to make the difference. This can determine whether you have written a YA story or one in another category.
In All the Bright Places (Jennifer Niven, 2015), MC Violet Markey rides a bike for transportation. Why? Because we know that 16 is the youngest age someone can legally drive and bikes are a way to travel without your mom driving you around in the broken-down minivan. While bikes are a logical part of a YA protagonist’s world, we also find out that Violet is actually avoiding other types of travel due to a tragic loss.
Here is where the real YA juices start flowing.
Violet isn’t just rebelling from her family and seeking independence, she's flat out refusing to use her driver’s license! Teens avoid the inevitable acceptance that life as an adult is inherently different. It is natural for a teen like Violet to want to push "pause" and stop growing when life becomes overwhelming.
Using plausible but interesting plot points that relate to a teen’s life helps readers recapture that wonder. Making the reader warn the characters from behind the pages about the foreseeable pitfalls of their choices and breaking our hearts anyway, makes the YA story irresistible.
What is the time frame of your story?
Most YA storylines last a year or less. There are exceptions, but there are pragmatic reasons for keeping your story's timeline short. These kids haven’t been alive that long. A year is forever, especially in high school. A story arc for a freshman would appear very different from one with an upperclassman.
If your story is longer than that, the good news is that you may have more than one story to tell!
What is the Main Conflict in your story?
There are certain constraints for your character built into their YA story arc. Characters act differently if they're thirteen years old versus eighteen. The age of the protagonist should match the main problem they face.
Is your story about a character's first independent trip, or starting a babysitting business? These situations have more impact when your character is closer to the Middle Grade stage (12-14 or younger).
Whereas decisions about an occupation, working in a restaurant, or getting cut from a high school sports team is much more suited to the 14 years or older age range.
No topic is off-limits if handled with care.
It isn't hard to find examples of controversial but popular books and series that cover dark subject matter. The Hunger Games, 13 Reasons Why, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Fault in Our Stars cover sanctioned murder, suicide, mental illness, and teens with cancer. This hardly seems like material to hand to young readers.
I've read many questions from writers who wonder if their gritty story line is too dark. Teen novels thrive in the dark corners of the undeveloped mind.
Their early cynicism is part of what keeps teens alive through this impulsive part of life. Dark stories can provide safe, vicarious places for readers to make their own choices about what is right and wrong.
Readers learn empathy and experience other cultures through these stories.
A writer's job is to capture that worry and wonder and give readers experiences to feel of all the feels.
What is your story’s Conflict?
Identify your conflict - YA by definition is all about awkward, cringe-worthy, desperate, confused, and at times incredibly innocent, adolescence. These elements when rooted in the coming of age, problems of a teen kind of way, pave the way for a YA novel readers will crave.
If the main problem (i.e. mom’s dating my math teacher) is inherent to the teen years, your story is YA. If the story could fit in a different time, maybe it’s not.
One writer asked whether we would categorize their story about a teen who snuck into the army as YA. This writer considered the conflict and point of view of the MC with the following questions.
- Do we feel as if we are alongside the teen in their situation?
- Are the concerns of the protagonist consistent with what teenagers feel?
- Do they pick up the weapon but worry if they said the right thing to the girl?
- Is doing something for the first time in all its glory oozing from the story? Flying a plane, traveling beyond the borders of a little town, meeting a new kid with worldly tales?
- Do they trip over their own feet and feel out of place, even though their dialogue shows a different tale?
Teens are faking it until they make it. (Kind of like a lot of successful people!) This dynamic of uncertainty must be present to make authentic YA that resonates from the pages.
Does your story need to be in the category of YA?
Write your best story. Should be experienced through the eyes of a teen? Find the bones of the story. The story will let you know. Listen carefully as it may be whispering something else to you.
If it isn’t inside the parameters of YA, or you don't hear any whispering, don’t be discouraged. The story may belong on another shelf, if the story isn’t suited to YA, make it shine as a MG or Adult novel.
YA is a narrow focus with many genres and is just one type of story to tell. Stay true to your tale and make it shine. Use the questions above to focus your story and enhance if it is YA, if not you will know better what to disregard.
IMPORTANT TIP: Know that part of adolescence is having a superpower to spot pandering and two-dimensional characteristics light-years away. Effective YA writing involves working out tough topics and plotting them in satisfying ways. No shortcuts in fleshing out the stereotypical characters either.
If you have seen this character before, or feel you have figured out the ending in the first pages, why would you as a reader continue?
This article by a YA editor offers great suggestions to read to continue your exploration of the craft. Writer’s Digest has an interesting article written by a teen writer asking adult writers to just… stop. We have covered guidelines here to get to the heart of what makes an effective YA story, but really listening to your protagonist helps.
What story featuring a young protagonist has stayed with you? Are there favorite stories from your youth (or a youthful story) that you've re-read recently? What other YA writing tips do you have to share? I look forward to your comments!
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Kris Maze writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her brief horror stories and keep up with her author events at her website.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, hiking the forest with her dog Charlie, and pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross.
Kris Maze's debut novel IMPACT arrives tomorrow! See here for the last day of Pre-Sale prices!
The year is 2098, and Nala Nightingale is a young journalist at the media conglomerate Intercambio 7. She wants to investigate her parents untimely deaths. Instead, she’s stuck reporting on the latest makeup trends with her rival Mimi. That all changes when a catastrophic asteroid hurtles towards earth. Inspired by a wordless book and the red gems on her bracelet, Nala turns down the broadcast of a lifetime to unravel her past before the impact. However, things don’t go as planned. The world above ground is in ruins. Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?
Published through Aurelia Leo in various formats.