Some of this comes from LTUE and some of it comes from the Writing Excuses podcast Season 2 Episode 2 “Writing for Children with Brandon Mull.”
What is YA?
First of all, let’s define what exactly the YA genre is. It overlaps with Middle Grade and New Adult (which is a new genre working on blooming at the moment). The main thing that determines which of these genres your story fits will be the age of your protagonist. For YA it can range from 14-18. New adult targets the ages 18-30. But what about 12 & 13, you might ask, aren’t they teens also? Well, they’re middle grade. (And actually, 13 is a tricky age publishers hate and work hard to avoid, so it’s just best to make your protagonist 12 or 14 most of the time.) An easy way to break it down is that middle school is middle grade, and high school is YA. Anything after high school is probably New Adult.
YA can then be further sub-divided into the genres you see in adult fiction. Examples: romance, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and so on. In adult fiction these genres have strict rules to divide them, but in YA these rules become blurred and sometimes non-existent. YA is a very fluid, plastic genre where anything goes.
So, really the only key to writing good YA is to know how to write a good story tailored to your audience. That brings up the question:
How do you tailor a story to a teenage audience?
I have some tips and things for you to remember that should help with that.
1. DON’T BE PREACHY.
I know you might want to teach teenagers and young adults important life lessons, but nobody wants to be lectured or preached to, especially teenagers. We go to church and school for that. That’s not usually why we read.
Remember WHY kids read. YA is the genre where the readers start choosing the stories for themselves instead of having the stories handed to them by their parents. They will put your book down if it doesn’t satisfy their needs and desires for reading. Personally, I read and write to have fun, to feel emotion, and to be moved by something deep. Other people read to escape harsh reality, have a laugh, experience romance, or one of many other reasons. None of those reasons include getting preached to.
However, that doesn’t mean your story can’t teach a lesson. It does mean that when you teach a lesson it has to be deep in the story as a guiding theme. Be subtle. Show and don’t tell. Let it be a natural part of the story, more like a side-effect than the main purpose. They’ll get it and appreciate you not rubbing it in their face.
2. Make the characters memorable.
What makes a memorable character? Don’t worry. I’ll write a post entirely on that and link to it here when I do.
3. It doesn’t have to have a romantic subplot.
Really, it doesn’t. There’s more to life than romance and sex, and some people don’t even have that on their radar. They don’t care and don’t want to read about it.
The world is already bursting with stories about sex. We could use more stories about different things.
4. How important is family?
It depends on if it adds conflict. Ever wondered why so many protagonists are orphans? Well, if those protagonists had happy safe family lives at home they might not have ever left on whatever epic quest their story took them on. Harry Potter wouldn’t have ever needed to face Lord Voldemort if his parents hadn’t died. Simba would have happily grown up a spoiled child at pride rock if Scar hadn’t killed Mufasa. Think of some other stories about orphans or children with one parent. If they had a complete happy family, would their story ever happen? Probably not.
Every aspect of a story needs to add conflict and push the plot forward. Most often a happy home life doesn’t do that. An unhappy home life, however, does. Families can be an important part of the main character’s conflict. If having a family will make the protagonist’s journey more difficult, then by all means add one in! Dealing with family can be an entire story or character arc of it’s own. There’s no need to avoid letting your main character have a family as long as it doesn’t detract from the story. If it does, get rid of it or change it until it helps instead of hinders.
5. Teenagers can carry the world on their shoulders.
YA needs to deal with problems that affect young adults, but young adults deal with a lot. Their external issues can be anything from battling inter-dimensional space dragons to save the world, being a teen parent or oldest sibling who has to take care of their family, to taking out the non-metaphorical trash. Some teens deal with “normal” teen issues, while others have to be adults before their time. The important thing to remember is that while their external issues might be the same as an adult’s, they will be dealing with them with the mind of a teenager. Their internal issues need to match their metal age. Even mature teens are still teens.
This doesn’t mean you downplay their mental reasoning or maturity. Teenagers see themselves as grown up and mature, so treat your character that way. I liked the way Bryce Moore put it while speaking in the LTUE panel: “However old you are is the oldest you’ve ever been, so you’re mature, dang it!”
6. Diversity is cool! (Except for when it isn’t.)
Diversity helps make your story more interesting and unique. By adding diversity you broaden your own mind view as well as the view of your audience and make the world a better place. At least, that’s the theory. If abused and used when it shouldn’t be then diversity becomes a gimmick and fails to benefit your story.
So don’t treat diversity like vegetables in a meal. You know what I mean, with that “I have to eat them because they’re healthy” attitude so you stick them in everything.
Just because diversity is cool and something people are pushing for doesn’t mean you have to add it to your story. Don’t force it if it isn’t right. You don’t have to add a multicultural character just because it’s what’s expected. That does your story and people of other cultures or backgrounds an injustice. For example, I have a story based in Colorado. There are almost no people of color there, so adding in a black person just for the sake of diversity would be wrong. It would go against the setting. (And hey, it’s already got werewolves and other magic beasts. Do I really need to add anything?) However, in my sci-fi story based in a futuristic space station game center, making everyone white would be wrong. That setting requires a large diversity of cultures, skin-types, and species (like aliens!).
Diversity in your story can be subtle or complex and up-front. Find things that are different and cool about the location and culture of the area and make them an integral fun part of the book. If diversity will add to your story, then great! If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.
That doesn’t mean you should just shrug diversity off and never worry about it. Seriously consider diversity for your story and whether or not it will work. If you want to make your story more diverse, but don’t see a way to with your setting then ask yourself what you can change. Would a change of location help? Maybe instead of basing your story in bleached white no-name USA, you could take it to New Orleans, Chicago, Cuba, or even Canada. Or you could change the time period. You could even change the race of your main character (which might require a location change). There’s a multitude of ways to add diversity.
Just make sure to thoroughly research whatever type of diversity you’re putting into your story. You don’t want to make/encourage stereotypes. That defeats the purpose. If you’re going to have diversity in your story, then do it justice.
Also, secondary world fantasy is a cool, growing genre to consider. What’s that? Well, it’s fantasy based on cultures other than the standard western medieval ages. A good example is Drift by M. K. Hutchins. Personally, I love stories like this and want to read more. I will write at least one someday.
And that’s it!
So there you have it. Six things to remember to help yourself tailor your story to a teen audience. Now go forth and write!