Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 11, 2022

5 Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel

by Kathleen Baldwin

Today I will give you 5 secret ingredients that will inspire teens to shell out their allowance money to buy your super-cool teen novel. And not just teens…

Potions and a steaming cauldron on a table with the words 5 secret ingredients for writing a killer teen novel floating eerily out of the steam

If you are writing Young Adult fiction, nearly 50% of your audience may be adults.

Yep, and some of them might be as old as eighty or maybe even ninety. Age doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t, not when it comes to reading teen novels. Some people stay young at heart forever. So whether the average YA reader is 65 or 12, when they pick up your book, they’re looking for a novel with some very specific features.

Those features may not be the ones you think they are…

When I got into the fiction business, I assumed I was writing romantic comedies for adults. Ha! Apparently not. My brother-in-law, a professor of English at a prestigious university and at the time also president of the National English Teachers Association, said, “You do realize you are writing YA, don’t you?”

I insisted he was wrong, but a few months later, a prominent book reviewer contacted me requesting an interview. “Kathleen, you do know you are writing YA, don’t you? And you really ought to be more intentional about it.”

More intentional??? I intended to write comedic, satirical romances like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. I thought that was what I’d done. Following the book reviewer’s stern lecture, I decided to figure out why everyone thought I was writing YA.

What is the difference?

I needed to know, so I read YA and middle-grade fiction. I studied manuals on writing for that market. Some advice seemed to fit, some did not. I read more books, talked with teens and librarians, and kept reading.

(Did you notice the abundant use of the word read?) Here’s a quote from New York Times bestselling author Tony Hillerman “When I was teaching writing — and I still say it — I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading.”

After reading and studying, I tackled a new series armed with an arsenal of YA-centric secret weapons. My alternate history for teens garnered multiple offers and finally sold to TorTeen—MacMillan’s teen publishing imprint at Tor Forge. The New York Times Sunday Book review called School for Unusual Girls, “…enticing from the first sentence.” Kansas NEA awarded it “Best of the Best” for high schools, it was a featured Junior Library Guild Selection, Texas ALA made it part of their SPOT middle grade reading program, and it was optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Saving Private Ryan, Spiderman, Transformers, and other blockbusters.

I mention these accolades so you’ll have confidence that I know a little something about writing a successful teen novel.

My Top 5 Secret Ingredients…

Dozens of websites out there can give you the basics, but I figure you here at WITS are above all that. You’re ready for the secret sauce recipe, right? You already know the main characters can’t be thirty-five, that mama can’t ride in on her white stallion and save the kid from all the trouble he’s gotten into, and generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to throw in any graphic language or erotica. Although…I’ve seen that done. I’m not advocating it, just saying the lines keep shifting, and I’ve seen it done.

Only Splendid Characters Are Allowed into
the Inner Sanctum

The first secret ingredient is a relatable character. “Okay, okay,” I hear you saying, “That’s not a secret. There are hundreds of books on characterization.” And I suspect you’ve probably read dozens of them. I’m with you. My personal favorite is an older book by Robert Peck called Fiction is Folks.

Pssst, the actual secret is building a character that teenagers trust enough to allow into their inner sanctum, a character they can identify with. Trouble is, there isn’t just one character type everyone will find relatable. Not that you’re writing for everyone. You’re not! You are writing for YOUR unique reader. See my post on finding YOUR reader.  

However, there seem to be several character traits that have a remarkably universal appeal. Harry Potter is one of the most widely-loved characters in Fictionville. Let’s examine his relatability factors:

• Orphaned.

While not all of us have been orphaned, many readers have felt left out, unloved, or unimportant at one time or another in their lives. the issue is not whether your character has both living parents, one, or none. The feeling of being abandoned and on their own is the critical component.

• Parents died trying to save him.

This is a hopeful characteristic. Even though now others minimize him and make him feel valueless, at one time Harry was so important his parents and others were willing to die to save him. This goes to the reader’s need to feel important despite external evidence.

• Feels left out and alone.

This is a fairly universal experience, especially among young readers. Addressing and arcing this emotion is a critical factor in teen literature.

• The worst villain in the world wants to kill or convert him.

This is a handy factor. The fact that this terrifyingly powerful villain is after him validates Harry’s importance while also providing jeopardy and conflict for the story.

• He’s smart but unassuming.

Readers relate to characters who are smart but not braggadocios. Clever but not all-knowing.

• Brave but not fearless.

It’s okay to be afraid. Fear is normal. Most readers crave a fictional experience wherein a character overcomes their fears. However, a total cowering scaredy-cat might be a turn-off.

• He discovers he is gifted with special powers

Characters with a gift or gifts are appealing—it needn’t be magic, but it does need to be something interesting. All of us are gifted in some way or another. It is exciting, rewarding, and satisfying to discover those gifts. Consider Anne of Green Gables. She wasn’t magic; she was irrepressible and incurably enthusiastic and able to lift the spirits of people around her.

Take a look at other successful characters who share many of Harry Potter’s appealing traits:  Luke Skywalker, Cinderella, Snow White, Black Beauty, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Tris Prior in Divergent, Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief, and the list goes on for miles.

• Unpredictable Adventure

Take your interesting relatable characters and plunge them into an unpredictable adventure! WHOA! Wait, don’t grab your pencil just yet.

Busting free of predictability is trickier than you think. You have watched, read, or listened to thousands of stories. THOUSANDS! In his brilliant book on plot, Robert McKee warns us not to use the first five ideas that come to mind. The first five ideas will be mimics of ones we have seen, heard, or read. He encourages writers to brainstorm until they reach the tenth idea. Then they’ll begin getting fresher ideas. Go ahead, try it. Getting to ten is tough.

Years ago, I put my psychology background to use and built a brainstorming shortcut that I shared with many of my writing students. I love this tool. It is so handy that it has been plagiarized all over the internet. I want to give it to you today in its original form along with my commentary. It tricks your brain into bypassing the stuff you’ve seen a hundred times.

Image of a magic top hat suspended in air at an angle with a magic wand sprinkling sparkling Secret Ingredients
for Writing a Killer Teen Novel into the hat.

Kathleen Baldwin’s Magical Marvelous Idea Jump-Starter Tool

Let’s employ Joss Whedon’s superbly relatable character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let us suppose Buffy is walking through a graveyard at midnight...

1. What’s Obvious?

What does your reader expect will happen? What idea pops into your head first? The obvious idea is:

  • vampire jumps out and attacks Buffy; they fight, and she wins.

Yawn.

2. What’s blatantly opposite?

Consider all the elements of the first concept and write down a directly opposite idea, no matter how inane or outlandish:

  • What if a happy clown pops out of a headstone and serenades Buffy.

Um, okay… that’s weird, but yes, it is the opposite and now I’m curious.

3. Expand

At this point, your brain will be forced out of the expected scenarios and into the unexpected range. Now think of 5 or more opposite but slightly less outlandish ideas. Allow yourself to expand upon each idea.

  • An old lady sits in a rocker, knitting in the graveyard.

This is not quite as kooky as the clown, but let’s try to relate it to Buffy.

  • Buffy’s dead mother floats up singing a ghostly warning—eerily off-key.

Better. Her mom’s ghost is more interesting than the old lady. Push it further, and because it’s for teens, the mom may not be the best choice.

  • What if Buffy discovers a baby sleeping behind a tombstone?

Hhmm. I like it. How can we make this even more interesting?

  • What if the baby is a toddler? And maybe the little guy looks a lot like her missing boyfriend, Spike.

Nice! Now we’re getting somewhere!

  • Spike has been trapped in a time warp. Little toddler vampire Spike is crying, lost, alone, hungry… what’s a vampire killer to do?

Excellent! Now we have some intriguing useful unexpected conflict!

The goal is to make your reader wonder things such as:

  • What’s going on here?
  • Uh-oh, that baby looks like trouble…
  • Wait! Does this mean what I think it means?
  • Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen now?

Rules Make the world go around wrong!

Photograph of a kitten on a chess board staring down a row of white pawns, possibly considering the rules of writing a killer teen novel

Rules. Rules. Rules. Every game has rules.

This third ingredient seems ironic. The idea of rules sounds counter to anything a young adult might like, right? Except it turns out they’re essential to a successful YA story. Like all the rest of us, teens are confronted with rules all the time. Learning how to handle, circumvent, live happily with, or overcome wicked rules is a crucial part of our human experience.

Plunge your relatable characters into an unpredictable adventure and pit them against a system of, what I call, adversarial rules.

Fortunately, there are hundreds of rules and regulations beyond governmental systems available for you to use: societal norms, scientific laws, magic canons, unwritten expectations, parental strictures, school rules, physical and natural laws, etc..

Examples:

For instance, in John Green’s bestselling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel and Augustus are up against the natural laws and medical rules pertaining to cancer.

Hunger Games is a straightforward example of the main character being pitted against an unjust governmental regime.

On the other hand, in Harry Potter, the magic world rules are not unjust, but Voldemort has abused them, and Harry must learn them and break them to save the day.

Anne of Green Gables is a lovely example of the rules consisting of local conventions and status quo, both of which she must confront to achieve happiness.

In the masterpiece, Lord of the Flies, Simon must struggle to survive the life-threatening tyranny of lawless rule from his peers.

Get Real! Real Emotional — Real Logical

Readers read for vicarious emotional experiences. Whether you are writing high fantasy or a contemporary issue novel, your emotions must splash across the page in a big way. They must strike your reader with a dramatic slug to the gut and yet be grounded in rock-solid logic.

These two ingredients, angst and logic, may seem like fire and water, except they aren’t. Strong emotions and logic are more akin to the relationship between yeast and flour in breadmaking. They work together to create powerful results even though they seem like opposites. Handle them together because if they don’t work together properly, neither one rises.

A story may be spiced with relatable characters and stirred with imaginative action, but without powerful emotions and ironclad logic, it will land flatter than a saltless soda cracker.

Check your emotional logic with a teeny tiny eyelash comb.

Run it through beta readers, friends, and critique partners. Ask them to note any missing emotional reactions, and point out any passages where the emotions don’t make sense, are unclear, lack depth of feeling, or don’t feel realistic.

Employ body language and visceral reactions in your writing. Make your readers’ pulses race and their palms sweat right along with your characters. Margie Lawson’s WITS posts are extremely helpful for learning how to get believable emotion on the page.

Additionally, your overall story arc needs to bear a dramatic and satisfying change. That emotional dynamic will be why your reader tells her best friend, her mom, and the neighbor girl that they must read your book. It will be the reason a dental assistant will say dreamily as she’s cleaning your teeth, “I read the best book yesterday.”

Talk To Me — Voice

Voice, our fifth ingredient, is a somewhat ethereal concept to discuss and deserves an entire treatise of its own. There are several good discussions here on WITS. Type voice into the search bar, and you’ll find several helpful posts. I am particularly fond of this one by Julie Glover,

Your voice is all about who you are and allowing that to come out on the page. So, my suggestion is to relax and be open and truthful. Teens can spot phoniness from ten miles away. And whatever you do, don’t talk down to them.

What is voice, exactly? More importantly, what is your voice? I’ll briefly mention the how, what, where, and why of voice.

Style.

Most writers have a unique way of putting words together, and that’s part of voice. Your personality influences HOW you tell a story—your construction and delivery.

Content.

What stories do you have hidden inside you? What do you think about the world? What experiences from your life will you bring into your work? Content is all about WHAT you want to say.

Enrichment details.

This is the WHERE of your voice. Where have you lived? Where have you traveled? Everything you write is enriched by your experiences and your distinctive way of looking at the world.

Commentary.

This is the WHY of your writing. Why are you telling this story? What hidden truths are you sneaking into our subconscious? Whether you know it or not, when you tell a story, you communicate your perceptions of the world.

There you have it! The 5 Secret Ingredients

I hope these five powerful elements, characterization, unpredictability, rules, emotional logic, and voice, will resonate with you and enhance your writing. Now it’s your turn!

Do you have any secrets for writing for teens you can share with us?

* * * * * *

About Kathleen Baldwin

Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 620,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films.

Kathleen loves teaching writing. She’s excited her high-demand class on Scene & Sequel—A Super-Powered Writing Tool is now available as a lecture/workbook packet through Margie Lawson’s Writing Academy.

Leave a Reply

14 comments on “5 Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel”

  1. Fantastic post, Kathleen! I especially loved the Unpredictability tips - what an awesome idea! I'm off to try it out now. Thank you so much for your sharing your brain.

  2. I love your Idea-Jump Starter tool! But all five of these secret ingredients are fantastic and with appropriate genre or age-related tweaks, they can be used for all fiction. As you said, YA fiction isn't just for teens...the appeal is there for all readers. Thanks for a fabulous post.

    1. Hi Lynette! That's very astute of you to notice these elements can be applied to most fiction. I was thinking that same thing as I put it together, but then I'm so YA oriented as a writer I wondered if maybe I was simply seeing things through my own lens.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Carole!
      P.S.: I am a big fan of your mysteries. And your amazing horror stories are definitely unpredictable.

  3. Terrific post, Kathleen!
    I know that many adults enjoy reading YA, but I didn't realize it's about half. Wow.

    I've ventured into YA and find that now and then I slip into adult-speak. This is most often caught by other eyes-on. Thank goodness for willing readers!

    I love your Jump-starter Tool.

    1. Hi Ellen!
      Thank you for your comment! Your children's books are lovely, and I certainly don't see any adult-speak in them. 🙂
      But yes, it is easy to do, and I should've mentioned it. 'Eyes on' is an excellent plan. I have several teen beta readers and ask them to tell me when I say something that sounds that way. Also, it's essential to avoid trying to subtly lecture. If we are parents, a mini-lecture can slide in without us even noticing.

      Glad you enjoy the jump-starter tool! It's great fun.

  4. Thanks, Kathleen. I became one of those adults that are avid YA readers when my kids were in elementary and mid-high. Initially, I read the books on my kids shelves so I could better relate to them, their experiences, and understand conversation nuances at home. That sprung into a love for YA to the point of 'borrowing' their books at night while they slept, so I could read the stories. YA stories have so much to offer to a wide variety of age groups. I am currently working through my own YA fantasy manuscript and greatly appreciate your tips here. We're so often told what not to do with YA, it's refreshing to get the other side of the coin. I'm hoping to apply your Idea Jump Starter Tool today to a few scenes that need brainstorming.

    1. Hi Miffie!
      Thank you for your comment.
      Loved your story of reading your kids' books while they slept. How fun. YA is such an exciting and imaginative genre. I love it. Reading it is an excellent way to write it effectively.
      Glad you found the article helpful. Have fun with the Magical Mystical Jump-starter tool. It really works. Let me know what you think.
      Hugs
      Kat

  5. What an amazing post, Kathleen.

    As a YA writer, I love the advice you give. "You do know you are writing YA, don't you?" - gave me a giggle. What a wonderful way to discover your calling in writing.

  6. I'm totally with Deleyna - I love reading YA, and you've precisely laid out why. I'm late on the commenting front, but this post is perfect for every writer (YA or not). So soooooo useful. Thank you for writing it!

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