June 24th, 2020

How To Tell If You Are Writing a YA Novel

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.

Some examples:

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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About Kris

Kris Maze author pic

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.

18 responses to “How To Tell If You Are Writing a YA Novel”

  1. ecellenb says:

    Determining whether or not the story is Young Adult, or Middle Grade is something I struggled with, but as the story unfolded I found it to clearly be Young Adult. I also needed to increase the age of the main protagonist from 14 to 15 as it fit him better.

    I think you've hit upon something critical here. Write your best story. The story will know.

    Great post! You've given me lot to think about.

    • Kris Maze says:

      Hi Ellen,
      It really can enhance a story to place it correctly, adult or YA. I realize you have worked through the story of your historical fiction to find the best POV and age. Your characters are young and set on an unexpected journey of independence (I've been lucky enough to beta read some of it!). Even so, they are facing scary, adult activities and dangers. The dark topics are perfectly fine in a YA. I can't wait to see your work in print!

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    One of the intriguing things to me about YA is how much they are paying these authors- it is significantly higher yhan romance and women's fiction. I believe it is that cross-over factor. The teens are reading them AND their parents are reading them.

    And Congratulations on your debut!! I have to click through to that Amazon link and buy it!!

    • Kris Maze says:

      Thanks, Lady! The information on how YA is paying is encouraging and enlightening as well. It is true that the books are enjoyed by many.

  3. I didn't set out to write a YA novel. In fact, it was originally an adult (it still might be) fantasy novel set in another world. In the end, though, what I have is a novel where 55% of the chapters are from a sixteen year-old's POV. The rest are from her adopted mother's POV. The girl, Vistanna, is clearly the protagonist and there are six separate short stories told from each of her classmates' POV. Vista has suffered from severe abuse and in our world we'd consider her trans. She's struggling to find her place in the world in the context of her newfound freedom and first ever friends. Yes, I know, I don't ever make anything easy. I first tried to tell it from the POV of Tharlise, her new mother. It didn't work. I then switched to only Vista. Same problem, and that problem was how crucial to the story their relationship is and how Tharlise's past influences it.

    • Kris Maze says:

      Hi Christina,
      It sounds like your story is mostly told through the classmates' views. When considering multiple POV, there are many resources better than me to help figure those sticky parts out, but I can say that the character with the most to lose is generally the POV that has the greatest impact on the story.

      Depending on the content of the story line, you may want to think about whather the topic makes your book adult or YA. Is it motherhood and acceptance as a parent that resides at the heart of the story? That sounds more like an adult fiction.
      Dealing with nagging parents - and having multiple sets to 'manage' (teens always know best, right?) that would be YA. Dealing with abuse, the denial, the awkward misunderstandings due to lack of experience or little knowledge of a better life, and the betterment through relationships with peers? Those types of story arcs would fit a YA novel. I hope this gives you a little insight! Thank you for sharing your story lines!

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    YA and NA are really thriving.

    I love that you used Jennifer as an example. Her career really took off when she switched from WF to YA. She just optioned another novel for film and will be writing the screenplay. I've been following her career since the Velva Jean days.

    denise

    • Kris Maze says:

      Her book has all the highs and lows of a dramatic teen read. It was a perfect example. I didn't know she has another film in the making - I'll have to look into that.
      There are misconceptions about the category as to who reads the stories, right? It can be a good career move, especially if you enjoy the moody drama swings that make these books so engaging.
      Thanks for your input, Denise. Love your insights!

  5. Kris: I have a question. My novel is complete. It's an epic fantasy with multiple protagonists. The primary protagonists are young adults--aged 13-16, but their parents are also protagonists and help drive the story at certain times. Should I pitch this as Y.A. or does the fact I have adult protagonists, undermine that category?

    • Kris Maze says:

      At a quick glance, Peter, I would say YA given that your main characters are between ages of 13 and 16. Some things to consider are what is the main conflict? Does the book read from the view point of the young person? Those are what make the story YA. If it feels like you are stuck in those teen years, that helps determine whether it will make good YA material! Best of luck placing the book!

  6. sam Steidel says:

    question, Is age of the MC or PoV characters the primary determining factor. I have been told my writing is very youthful oriented but iI have few characters under this category. Would "Lord of the rings" fit as a YA. It did for me. I read Tolkien when I was 14.
    I am just saying, shouldn't voice and content be weighted higher.
    Thanks for the insight of this genre.
    Ps. in the back ground of your picture is Mt Hood. Double thanks from a fellow Oregonian.

    • Kris Maze says:

      Hi Sam,
      I am a transplant to the PNW, but my husband graduated from our current little mill town years ago. 🙂 The Gorge is a beautiful place to live.
      That's a good question on Lord of the Rings and I'm sure that could be a longer discussion than what I could go into here.

      As far as your story, I wonder what they mean by "youthful" as that could help you determine whether your story is YA. The YA perspective, the feeling of being a teen with the extreme reactions and uncertainty are good earmarks. Some stories have teen characters, but the driving points may appeal more to adults.

  7. Ericka McIntyre says:

    Excellent post Kris! "The story will let you know. Listen carefully as it may be whispering something else to you."--I LOVE this advice! (And it applies to more than YA.) I have often found the "is it YA?" question to be muddy in my work with authors. And I've also found that if you ask a librarian, an author, an agent, and an editor what precisely YA is (much less an actual young adult) you get widely different answers. Congrats on your book, too!

    • Kris Maze says:

      Thank you, Ericka. This is a great compliment given how much you work with all angles of the publishing world! I'm glad my guidelines resonate for more than Young Adult lit.

      You crack me up with the "much less an actual young adult" - my house has a few of those and I completely agree.

      I believe we met at the Pasadena Writer's Digest novel writing conference and am thrilled that you read my post. 🙂

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