Young adult novels are among the most popular categories of fiction today.
Modern examples include Stephanie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Series, and classic YA fiction such as J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders. They show just how impactful a successful work of young adult fiction can be.
In this article, we’ll look at the elements of successful YA fiction to help you how to write young adults novels that will surely be a hit with young readers.
How to write young adults novels
When writing your young adult novel, it helps to know what makes a good one.
What are the core elements of a successful YA novel? What do YA readers want and expect from the category? What should authors remember when it comes to crafting authentic characters? And what themes can be explored within the young adult category?
Below we’ve included six valuable tips on writing young adult fiction that readers will enjoy, covering:
- Decide on the Narrative or Point of View
- Develop authentic characters
- Keep it simple
- Be bold in choosing your theme
- Embrace change and challenges
- Raise questions, don’t answer them
Tips for writing YA fiction
1. Decide on the Narrative or Point of View
One of the most crucial elements to get right in your YA novel is the point of view (POV).
The POV is the standpoint from which your readers engage with your story, so it should offer a unique, engaging, and immersive perspective.
Young adult readers want to connect to their protagonists, experience what they go through, and learn from those experiences.
Often, the protagonist of YA fiction is in the first person narrative, or at least the objective narrator is heavily focused on the protagonist, so you still feel close to this leading character.
When writing young adult fiction in first person POV, readers experience the story’s world through the biased perspective of the narrator/protagonist. This perspective immerses readers in the story, helping them feel like they can be the protagonist and offering insight and emotional awareness through the character’s experiences.
Growing up as a teenager is inherently tumultuous and confusing, so connecting with your readers through shared experiences helps you stand out and gain a positive reputation as a young adult fiction writer.
Again, YA readers typically want a hero, a protagonist, to follow through the story. The same applies to many types of readers but is especially true for the young adult genre.
Engage your YA reader with a character that has a strong voice. Strong in this context does not necessarily mean powerful or assertive but rather a well-defined voice.
The voice should help the reader feel connected to the character in an intimate way.
Third person narrative
Some YA novels are written from the third person narrative, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series or John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines.
YA stories written in the third person allow readers to follow multiple characters throughout.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione play our main protagonists in the Harry Potter series, but we meet many other characters throughout the series.
Despite multiple characters of various ages and backgrounds, the story is still centered around teenage Harry and his friends’ experiences and worldviews.
Whether a story is written in the first or third person, the most critical element is that readers connect with and care about the characters.
2. Develop authentic characters
A young adult novel is not just about teens or young adults. It must be written from the emotional truth of these young characters.
Stories about teens written from an adult perspective miss the point. YA readers want to connect with the emotional truth of their characters, so if the story is written in retrospect as an adult remembering their teen years, then that matured adult perspective will dominate and isolate the young reader from genuinely connecting to the story.
When writing young adult fiction, authors must enter the mindset of the young characters, telling the story as it would be understood and told by them.
If you know teenagers personally, talk to them, listen to them, and get feedback on dialogue and perspectives. See what resonates with your teen reviewers to know what works and doesn’t.
Alternatively, reconnect with your sense of being a teenager. We don’t altogether leave behind our past selves. Our inner child and teen still exist within us and can offer us valuable information on their perspectives if we know how to reconnect and listen.
Don’t rely on hindsight and adult perspectives on teen issues and experiences. Events, emotions, experiences, and perspectives should be immediate and in the moment, not explored from a place of reflection.
This is one of the trickiest parts of writing young adult fiction. As an adult, you have a mature, less biased understanding of the world.
Teenagers are still learning about the world and their place within it, so things that make sense to your young character don’t have to make sense to you as an adult, and vice versa.
3. Keep it simple
In YA novels, plot and character development are driving forces. These are the reasons why books in this category appeal to their readers.
Plots and characters are so crucial that YA writers who get them right need not worry about intricate, complex prose.
Some writers like to boast their skills with intricately crafted thoughts and descriptions, but the young adult audience is not the audience to impress with these skills.
Shorter, concise sentences that move the story or scene forward are more suitable to YA novels than long, drawn-out explanations and descriptions.
4. Be bold in choosing your theme
Be bold and tackle big themes when it comes to writing YA books.
Just because you’re writing for and about teens and young adults doesn’t mean you must avoid taboo or controversial topics.
If you’re writing for younger readers, such as middle-grade fiction, then such issues as drugs and sexuality may best be avoided, but the young adult audience is open to anything.
Teenagers are exposed to a lot of subject matter in daily life and on the internet, and acting like they’re any less savvy or aware than they truly are is a surefire way to damage your reputation as a YA writer.
Your young readers will respect and appreciate your taking on big ideas and topics.
Your readers may be facing a whole host of personal, social, familial, and sexual issues in their real life and maybe turn to fiction to find something or someone to relate to or to learn from. As such, don’t shy away from topics such as sexuality, depression, suicide, rape, bullying, abuse, parental divorce, and domestic violence.
Consider John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The book centers around teenage cancer and the gritty truths everyone involved faces.
Jennifer Castle’s What Happens Now ventures into the depths of self-harm, depression, and first love in a raw look at the realities of teenage mental health.
These are tough topics to even think about, but such is the reason behind their success. Tough and emotionally heavy subject matters make for riveting stories. Good writing, too, is key.
Don’t expect major success by sacrificing quality writing for trending themes.
5. Embrace change and challenges
Many young adult novels feature a coming-of-age story arc.
In this genre, protagonists typically undergo significant life changes associated with being teenagers/young adults. It precedes and follows conflict and usually ends with the protagonist(s) entering a new stage of life.
Since the average YA protagonist is young, they are already going through age-related changes and challenges. Placing them in the context of a more significant challenge makes for great storytelling.
The teenagers/young adults archetypal to the genre are more open to change and adaptation than their adult counterparts, and these changes often take the plot spotlight.
Ordinary and rich circumstances in which characters face significant life changes and challenges include:
- Romance, first love, break-ups
- Desire for independence and still living with parents/being in school/dealing with authority
- Social struggles such as bullying, friendships, pressure to perform academically
- Navigating personal identity, individuation, developing self-awareness
- Dealing with unhealthy dynamics in the home
6. Raise questions, don’t answer them
Young adult novels typically end on a positive note or at least leave things open for interpretation. You don’t need to write happy endings exclusively, but there should be some sense in the reader that there is a future for the characters.
Even if the only positive aspect is a sense of hope for the future, that’s generally better than an ending that leaves the reader worse off than when they started reading.
It’s best to avoid answering questions and preaching to the audience about the moral lessons the characters learned. Instead, ask questions and leave things open to interpretation.
Allow your reader to wonder and reflect on the characters and plot. Too much preaching makes the reader feel you’re telling them how to interpret the story or the characters, so avoid lecturing.
Again, young adult readers want to connect to the story and characters, so if you end the story by ‘talking down’ or preaching, you create distance between the narrator and the reader.
If you want to write YA fiction that creates a real impact on your reader, the best advice is to read as much young adult fiction as you can. Get to know what makes a successful YA novel.
Remember that young adult fiction is not a condescending, dumbed-down version of adult fiction. Teenagers are more emotionally intelligent than many adults give them credit for. That means they can tell when an author is speaking down to them or playing on trends and tired tropes.
Craft authentic characters, explore real issues that affect young people, and don’t be afraid to cover touchy subjects.