By Kris Maze
The term YA as it refers to novels only requires that the protagonist be a teen and ideally the plot is shown through the experience a teen would face, but it can be difficult to write young adult stories in a believable and engaging way. Writing for young adults (YA) can be a tricky petulant monster, but it’s full of fun tropes and has a strong fan-base.
How can we pull of believable and enticing YA? As long as the main character is between the ages of 13 and 19, or could be in high school, and the plot aligns with a teen’s reality, the basics of good grammatical writing still apply. But there are a few extra caveats to make your YA stories shine brighter than an application of Kissing Stick Lip Gloss.
YA writers may run into common issues because of these specific requirements (teen protagonist, plot and theme centered on teen issues, teen problems inform the story.) We have to be careful not to alienate our audience by acting like we are currently that age, and let’s face it, most of us have left those years far behind. But it is also important to write in teen-speak and to house our story within the constructs of believable characters and events.
So how do non-teenaged writers manage to create novels that will engage both teen readers and adults alike? Well, in true teen style, we learn to break some of the traditional writing rules. What is more appealing to an adolescent than reading something that would make their traditional English teacher cringe? See what tips can make your YA story the page burners these books tend to be.
Dialogue is a great tool to draw readers into a story and YA writers should use it a lot. One reason YA readers enjoy this type of book is the ease of reading. It’s easier to focus on the story and when the eye sees breaks on the page with short dialogue segments, it’s like a mental breath of story air. One way dialogue works its magic is that it breaks up white space on the page.
Short segments of description and action with quick-paced dialogue can keep a YA story moving along in the same way a teen experiences life, through what they hear. Let the characters tell their thoughts and feelings (or what they are refusing to talk about), and the reader will pay attention.
Consider having characters that have a variety of backgrounds and dialects. Each character’s voice should be easily identifiable through their choice of words and personality. Teens have different ways of speaking from adults, but also with a lot a variety. Make it easy for your reader to understand who’s speaking and bring them into your story.
Keeping that dialogue authentic is key. Teens may speak in grunts or eloquent snarky jabs. But one thing is certain. It is not long grammatically correct sentences. Try saying any section of dialogue aloud to check for authenticity.
We don’t always speak with grammar in mind. Let the dialogue reflect what the speech sounds like. Does it sound like the kid down the block? Your niece or babysitter? Minimally, does it sound like a popular teen character in a series you love? Be sure to make your characters sound like teens and your story will sparkle because of this extra attention to detail.
Grammar is great if you are trying to get a perfect SAT score, but we are writers. Purveyors of story and fantasy. We have unique license to break these rules in the name of provocative storytelling. Readers expect a voice that is inexperienced, unsure, impulsive, and not full of stoic, grammar-police perfectly practiced English.
Grammar is a vehicle for communicating and it should make reading easier. To keep the grammar as smooth as possible and adhere to good writing skill, consider the following:
Have you ever been told in English class that you have run-on sentences? There is a time and place for a version of this mishap of writing, and it can be a great addition to YA fiction. Anyone who has learned the Deep Edits system designed by Margie Lawson, would be familiar with her teachings on rhetorical devices.
One that is appropriate for YA works is polysyndeton. It’s writer uses a really long sentence that doesn’t use commas or punctuation and goes on and on and on. Just like a teen when they are excited, upset, or in full stream-of-consciousness mode. This device, along with asyndeton, or replacing all the conjunctions with commas and letting the sentence ride on.
Many expressions have the shelf life of unrefrigerated yogurt on a hot summer afternoon. You could taste it, use it, but it’s risky.
Many cool and catchy expressions have also changed their meaning over time. It is better to use plain English to get across ideas. Sometimes a simple “cool” will do. Tic Tok might make certain expressions and trends not stop, but those trends will burn out before you finish your first draft.
Keep your work relevant and don’t use trendy expressions.
Nothing can date a piece of writing quicker than using the latest technology of the day. Keep technology vague or chose to write in an era that doesn’t have as much quick changing tech are a couple ways to handle this.
Anyone remember a nano? That super cool new I-pod? Flip phones or Blackberries? All the coolest things in their day. We hope our novels will last longer than the time those must-have items stole the spotlight.
Add dimensions. Teens feel things deeply and often see things adults have forgotten to appreciate.
A wonderful example of complex and deep thinking characters in YA is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In this look at American teenaged life, Stephan Chbosky’s main character Charlie starts his high school career alone and depressed and finds companionship with a group of seniors dealing with their own dark pasts. He also connects with his English teacher who gives him multiple books to read.
The topics covered in this novel are timely and sensitive, trigger warning worthy, as ‘well-adjusted kids’ work through the issues of abusive boyfriends, mental health problems, suicide, sexuality, homophobia, divorce, drug use, child abuse and how to have real conversations around these topics.
Do teens in your novel have the same constraints as actual adolescents? Teens all have high learning curves in life. Be sure in your story that your teen characters have layers of appropriate challenges and concerns that teens would face. Be certain that they don’t know everything (although they can think they do.)
An example of appropriate learning curves for teens is their first time operating a vehicle. Learning to tackle transportation, subway or first car ride, horse and buggy or spaceship could cause similar hangups, problems, and complex feelings in your main character. Remember your first brush with freedom that driving or riding a bike gave you? That is the stuff that makes YA shine.
First love, first independence, first disappointment, first brush with mortality. Choose a theme around one of these and your story will be much stronger than if it is just an adult story with a precocious young person acting like an adult.
One of the best ways to tackle the voice of a teen is to spend time with young adults. Try one of these ideas and connect with a young person.
Developing a better understanding of issues unique to teen life today can round out your story telling from a teen perspective as well.
What makes YA fiction a go-to for you? What was one of the first books that really meant something to you? Let us know in the comments below.
Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications, including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and young adult writing on her website. Keep up with future projects and events by subscribing to her newsletter. And other writing work HERE.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.
And occasionally, she photographs flowers.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Great post. Thanks! I just finished writing a YA fantasy. The main character is a faerie. All the YA stuff--friends, romance, constraints, firsts, the feeling of knowing it all then learning she doesn't--apply in the Otherworld just as much as they do in this one.
The great thing about writing fantasy is that I could invent slang for her and her friends. I also came up with some swear words, such as sha-faerg. What does it mean? Whatever the reader wants (as a substitute for a common human obscenity or as curse unto itself). It's just clearly a strong word because Siobhan only uses it when she's REALLY upset or has totally screwed up.
As you said, firsts can apply to a number of situations. My protagonist has a first time attempting to make an herbal enchantment (which she isn't supposed to be doing without supervision). It doesn't go well. She also stays with an aunt in the human world for the summer. This causes Siobhan to have to deal with a lot of firsts, many of them with a human boyfriend (in the 21st century) who doesn't know she's a faerie. Besides not having her own phone or knowing how to text, she's confronted with non-techie issues like how to open a soda can with a fliptop.
Again, thanks for the post. Your advice is understandable and easy to apply. Best wishes.
Your YA novel sounds like a fun world to get lost in. The firsts is an important element to make YA fresh and fun. Who doesn't want to experience the rush and danger of something new?
And thank you for the compliment. I'm very happy this post is useful to other YA authors. 🙂
Thanks for your comments. The post is indeed helpful.
Best wishes. 🙂
Sha-faerg. I love it! YA is a genre I haven't tackled yet.
You're experienced at writing romance, so if you want to try your hand at YA, you've already got that essential skill down. I haven't read your WHAT IF AN OCTOPUS FOLLOW ME HOME yet but, now that I know about it, I want to. After all, you don't have to be a kid to enjoy children's books. Right? 🙂
Thanks! I'm not ruling YA out but I'm still trying my hand at a second children's book but for older children. I found writing a children's book to be more difficult than writing a novel. You have to express a lot with a lot fewer words. 🤯
Oh, children's books. The picture books are so dependent on the illustrations too. It's almost like you want to have a collaboration in mind before starting, but pictures books are not something I have tackled.
Middle Grade and chapter books are a potential outlet for some of my future writing. I've been working on a few projects for Spanish learners. (Since in my day-to-day that is what I do, I teach Spanish too!)
Switching grade levels can be an inspiring endeavor.
Yes, picture books are definitely dependent on the illustrations. And middle grade and chapter books are difficult in their own ways. I'm still trying to complete the one I began after releasing What If an Octopus Followed Me Home? and that was in 2018.
Lol! I've been learning Spanish using Duolingo since about a year after the pandemic began. It's great that you can write your book in Spanish so that you don't have to hire someone to do it.
There are fantastic apps out now that are effective for learning the language. I practiced with one, learning French on Babbel, as an experiment to see how well it worked (I had no previous French learning.)
I dropped a few French expressions during lunch with a French teacher, who approved. And I felt like I understood the conversations they had in her class.
Even though I can write my novels in Spanish, I will still hire a Spanish editor and have Spanish beta readers. There is just no great substitute or short cut for eyes on the story.
Best of luck y que aprende bien el Español.:)
Le francais? Moi aussi, mais avec Duolingo. Je suis aprender et lire un peu francais. Il est dificil mais je peux comprendre.
I get the tenses mixed up sometimes.
To be clear, my aural comprehension is much better than reading French. Spanish is more my jam. 🙂
I hear ya. I sometimes get the words mixed up because I'm learning both at the same time and some words are similar. But better late than never, I always say. I'd love to take my mom to Paris someday soon and understand some of the words and phrases. I definitely learned the word "lentement" (slowly), if nothing else. 😆
The other day, I was watching Eva Longoria on CNN with her traveling and eating in Mexico and I could actually understand a lot of what they were saying. Not all, but more than I would if I was learning Spanish. 😉
I love the spirit of this language journey. The willingness to muddle through and make sense of what you hear is key to understanding more and becoming fluent. Keep going! (That's what I will share with my students as well.)
I wish I did it decades ago.
Bon chance aussi!
I can fully believe writing a children's book is difficult. It's like writing flash fiction--but with a confined list of vocabulary. Good luck with your new children's book. 🙂
Right? I love the slang. YA is a perfect place to makes quirky and fun curse words.
Very informative, Kris!
Thank you, Pamela!
And I appreciate the comments. It's always more fun to write a post that gets our writer-readers into a conversation.
Best of luck in your writing. And maybe some future YA writing-adventures?
Great tips, Kris!
It's remarkably easy to date a story with tech as well as hot vernacular use. I think it's helpful to have teens Beta read for YA.
Having YA beta readers is a fantastic idea. They are a perfect audience to catch the elements that don't resonate with younger readers.
I try to get a few fresh eyes on it in the grade level it is intended to be read by. Also, librarians and teachers can be good resources for beta readers for identify odd passages or things that may not work for YA.
Great post! I wish I would have had this when I was writing teen books!
Thank you! Hopefully it will be a good resource for current YA writers. Perhaps you can resurrect some of past projects? I'm a fan of rewrites.
I read somewhere--reliable source--that using semicolons are passe` in most fiction.
However, its use as a tattoo has a different meaning and would be relevant in YA.
Denise, I'm curious about what you are talking about. I have seen tattoos with a semicolon, but I am not fully aware what they mean. It seems like one could mean to take a pause and reflect, especially before making a big decision. But the semicolon tattoo also seems to be part of a more profound, personal, and deeper meaning.
As always, writers have license to play and use grammar structures creatively. There will always be an exception to any must-do or have-to. Thank you for this example.