by Ellen Buikema
One of the most valuable qualities of writing YA Literature is how it addresses the needs of its readers. Young adulthood is a tumultuous time of evolving, searching for self and identity, growing and changing, transforming from the world of childhood to that of adulthood. This rite of passage is a distinct part of life, marked by specific needs—emotional, intellectual, and societal.
Many adult readers enjoy YA novels in part because it allows them to travel back in time to revisit events of their youth, cheering for the protagonists and agonizing with them. There can be a sense of catharsis, following the protagonists on their journeys.
Modern civilization has left a gap. In many societies elders no longer lead their youth through a rite of passage or coming-of-age. YA stories can assist in fill that gap, helping young adults to experience these transitions through the written word.
Samples of YA novels in various genres
- Western: Shane, by Jack Schaefer
- Fantasy: The Queen of Nothing, by Holly Black
- Horror: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
- Paranormal: Vampire Diaries, by Richelle Mead
- Crime: The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
- Steampunk: Leviathan, by Scott Lesterfeld
- Historical Fiction: Code Name: VERITY, by Elizabeth Wein
- Romance: Along for the Ride, by Sarah Dessen
- Memoir: Ordinary Hazards, by Nikki Grimes
There are many YA novels that cross over several genres. For example, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, covers fiction, romance, dystopian science fiction, fantasy, action, and adventure.
Rules of the YA Road
The kids are in the front seat.
Adults in Young Adult stories should take a backseat to the teens, as well as to the action. Adults may appear when needed, and then go away. The protagonists must make their own decisions, go forward with the plan, and figure out their dilemmas themselves. Otherwise the book will be unsatisfying. The struggle needs to be real.
Protagonists Need to be Relatable
Recognizing yourself in the pages of a YA novel sends the message that you are not alone.
Problems posed in Young Adult fiction don’t have to be limited to teen problems, although there are plenty of those. The teen protagonist may try to save the family by coming up with wild schemes to pay the mortgage, like composing a tune that allows for teleportation, or building a self-refilling refrigerator. Anything goes.
Many protagonists have issues in common.
- Struggling with the motivation to move forward
- A need to be accepted by peers, and parental acceptance at a deep level
- Determining who to trust
- Battling depression and anxiety
- Self-respect and standing up for what you believe in
- Intimate relationships
- Facing torment from peers
- Drug use and abuse
Every one of these problems creates stress for the characters and helps with relatability for the reader.
The themes in Young Adult novels are adult in nature, but not graphic.
Point of View
The story’s point of view determines how the tale will be received by the reader.
Most Young Adult novels are told from either first-person or third-person perspective. First-person adds intimacy. It brings the reader into the personal experience of the narrator. Third-person, particularly omniscient, allows the reader to catch any clues the characters miss.
There is no right or wrong.
Choose which perspective works best for you and the story. you might begin the first draft in third-person close past-tense, decide that doesn't work for you, and then go back to the beginning and write in first-person present-tense. If after a few chapters you feel you are unhappy with your choice, choose again. Experimentation is good.
Gritty vs Profane
When can I swear, dagnabit?
Generally speaking, swearing can be used to shock, for comic effect, to show mood, and can be a form of linguistic violence. Swearing in YA is frowned upon, so it should be kept to a minimum. Grit may be shown in character action and mood.
Language will vary, especially if you are writing a series and the characters are aging, therefore, undergoing complex emotions. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry, the main protagonist, ages from an eleven-year-old boy to a seventeen-year-old young adult, with all the confusion hormones bring. His language changes as he ages to keep his character authentic.
Vocabulary will change due both to situations and maturity. A character may be a mimic and after a few days begin to speak as the locals do, or might use different speech around friends than with grandmother.
YA fiction may be considered the literary category where characters achieve the most growth. Teens are in a constant state of change and so should the protagonist in a YA story. The protagonist needs to have new experiences and face roadblocks until the end goal, changing as a person along the way.
Lob on the conflicts to create tension—problems adapting to change, self-identity, relationships. More tension gives greater possibilities for personal growth. You are carving a unique soul. As far as I know, your characters can’t murder you in your sleep, so no worries.
About the Plot Points in Your YA Novel
Consider the following points for each scene:
- What are my characters learning?
- Is the conversation important for character growth?
- What is driving the emotions?
- Does the scene move the plot forward?
Most authors ask these questions of every scene in any novel. Remember, by answering these questions, you will keep the readers’ interest.
Finding Your Inner Teen
A tip for finding your teen voice: Revisit popular music from your teen years.
In a quiet space, close your eyes and listen to the music. Let your mind wander to a high school dance, music store, a friend’s house, driving in a car with friends, driving alone, hanging out at the pool during the summer, or being alone in your room.
Musical memory is deeply rooted in the mind. When you hear the music and visualize where you’ve heard it in your past, memories from that time will return, allowing you to reconnect with teen memories.
Do you have a favorite YA genre? What technique(s) do you use to reconnect with your younger self? Do you prefer a particular point of view for YA? Please share with us down in the comments section!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.