By Kris Maze
Writing an irresistible novel that readers can’t put down is the goal of most writers. Using plot-strengthening techniques gleaned from Young Adult writing can improve any novel, no matter the genre or the age of readership. A story featuring a teen protagonist has a fertile bed of emotions to cultivate with built-in rites of passage moments that all readers can relate to or anticipate.
The following seven elements can heighten the drama and tension in any story, helping you write a book your readers won’t want to stop reading.
1. Utilize a subplot about Belonging.
Be it finding peace in a dysfunctional family, bonding with a band of misfits, or navigating the expectations of first love, YA books all have a coming-of-age component that stems from a need for acceptance.
Abraham Maslow formed a psychological theory describing man’s needs to survive and then thrive in a hierarchical system. The inverted triangle begins with the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (physiological).
The character arc you create should take care of these needs before the protagonist moves up to the higher levels of security and safety, followed by belonging and intimate relationships.
For Young Adult fiction, you can usually stop at the level of belonging, but there should be the promise of improved self-esteem and self-actualization. These deep-seated needs will feed a reader's satisfaction with the character’s growth.
2. Put the protagonist's worst moments under a microscope.
Teens are hyper self-focused and naturally worry about more than they need to. Bring your reader into those moments. Let your character wallow in self- pity. Let the sting of loss sink in with the reader; it resonates more when your character finds success later on.
Best friends move away. Students graduate and life will never be the same. Accidents happen and cannot be undone. A scholarship can’t be regained. Death of a loved one will hurt forever. These are moments that set the stage for better times yet to come.
Possible resolutions to these issues:
- Best friends move away. But they can join the ecology club and meet a new kid in town.
- Students graduate and life will never be the same. They can exhibit new independence as they get their first job.
- Accidents happen and cannot be undone. They can see their loss as a new opportunity to focus on what they really want in life.
- A scholarship can’t be regained. They can develop a new product that sells like social media hotcakes and pay their way instead.
- Death of a loved one will hurt forever. They can learn the rich emotions surrounding the bittersweet memories of a loved one in honoring a special celebration.
3. Play up their flaws and make your character squirm.
Zeroing in on your characters' insecurities or lack of resources makes them squirm on the page. If your reader is rooting for that character, every time you stick in the knife they will squirm right along with that character.
In the 2008 science fiction Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd Hewitt only has fuzzy memories of his mother after a Noise germ infected his town. The disease makes all men’s thoughts audible and caused women to disappear. When Todd's thirteenth birthday is days away, he realizes the town holds a dark secret that may cost him his life. He flees and meets a silent girl, one with an education who uses highly-advanced technology (not found in his primitive town) to heal.
Todd wrestles with his inadequacies as he tries to defend himself and control his audible thoughts. This becomes increasingly difficult as he figures out that the girl hears and understands him! They must work together to survive and the plot escalates on many levels.
4. Make the stakes high and their relationships fragile.
Katniss in The Hunger Games begins in her normal world hunting with Gale Hawthorn. By doing this, she establishes herself as a rule-breaker of the tyrannical Capital, but only within her small daily scope. When her loyalty is tested, and she takes her sister Prim's place as Tribute, she has broken her whole world... including her future with Gale.
Katniss is hardened by her past, having lost her father to the mining system and her mother to grief, but further resists taking on the role of revolutionary. She ultimately comes to terms with a compromised role with a new relationship with Peeta as the story spins wildly toward her goal of taking down the corrupt system and focusing less on her own perceived happiness.
5. Use your Character’s newfound skillset.
When you build your character, take stock of their personality, people skills, hidden talents, negotiation savvy, or ability to coordinate their friend pack to win as a team. These are ways your protagonist should address the problem or conflict of the story. No outside help! Stay inside their personal world. I repeat, no outside ADULTS should solve the problem for them - this is a YA plot killer.
Would Dorthy of Wizard of Oz have had the same dynamic if she had Auntie Em to consult along the way?
6. Emphasize the protagonist's inner journey. Let them win!
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the protagonist Charlie begins high school as the sensitive, reclusive younger brother of his popular siblings. A group of senior misfits invites him into their bizarre social circle, and as Charlie steps out of his comfort zone he shares formative insights with each senior, developing genuine friendships.
But Charlie makes mistakes, (spoiler alert!) jeopardizing his acceptance from the seniors. At a party, he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl which is, alas, not his girlfriend! He learns the nuance of tact along with ways a relationship can become permanently altered.
Charlie’s journey is complex in this modern classic, as he uses his new-found ability to understand others and lives up to his potential; he overcomes a dark past and becomes a true friend in the process.
7. The ending should not be tidy.
Teens know that there are things to look forward to, and things to solve in real life. Realism includes messy endings. Make sure the main conflict is ironclad, then let some pieces float into the chaos that we expect.
- Does your character lack courage? Make sure they demonstrate bravery.
- Do they have stage fear as their main conflict? Have their performance shine.
- Do they have an impossible escape room puzzle? Let them be the sleuth to creatively resolve the problem.
- Do they consider themselves too weak? Let them run the marathon and win.
Other things may not resolve, but the main conflict MUST wrap up tightly.
Characters know life is unpredictable, it makes the story authentic. Teens will walk away from anything too contrived.
Pick a main thread and wrap that one up on all levels. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? Make your character scale the tiers. Let them land somewhere in the top half and avoid making it too perfect. Trust the reader to fill in some of these ideas, and leave them with questions to contemplate. Giving them loose threads also helps you the writer with creating sequels!
How can you use these ideas to tighten a story? What other resources or examples have most helped your craft? Share your insights below. I look forward to your comments!
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ris Maze writes empowering, twisty stories and also teaches Spanish. Her first Science Fiction novella was published in the summer of 2020.
Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and 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 speculative stories and keep up with her author events at her website.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.