September 28, 2020 12 min read5 Comments
This is a comprehensive guide to writing young adult (YA) fiction, designed to help you form your thoughts into a shape that will hook your readers and keep them flipping the page!
In today’s guide you’ll learn:
In short: if you have a story that’s bursting to get out into the world, you’ll love this guide.
Unlike other guides to writing YA, we’ll be using detailed examples at each step.
Mackenzie Belcastro is a freelance writer and the author of the low-fantasy, YA novel The Play House.
Affectionately acronym’d SYWW, we are a member-led, professional development community of writers established in January 2017.
We partner with literary agents, editors, and published authors to create great content & workshops, and offer coaching that helps writers improve their craft and publish.
While many of you may be seasoned writers, well-versed in the publishing world’s lingo, we also know that some of you are bound to be brand new to this world. If you’re part of the first camp, feel free to skip ahead.
If you’re in the second group—you’ve stumbled on this guide because you have a stellar story bouncing around in your head, but no idea if you’re even writing YA—don’t fret. You’re not alone. So many writers started where you are, in total darkness when it comes to industry terminology.
Stick with us here as we pull you out, and get you crystal clear on what YA fiction means.
YA fiction is a category of fiction written for and about teens between the ages of 12 and 17. When compared to adult fiction, it’s quicker-paced and more plot-driven.
Young readers tend to have a short attention span. They crave immediacy. Keep this in mind with every word you lay down on the page. There’s no room for lofty contemplation here. Save any waxing and waning for your adult, literary novel.
Tip: writing in the present tense will feed that sense of urgency teens are hungry for.
As a rule of thumb, a YA book excludes any insight that a typical teen would not yet have. This is to maintain the integrity of the character.
Imagine if Leigh Bardugo wrote in Shadow And Bone that Alina Starkov had the wisdom of a senior citizen. It wouldn't make sense, given Alina is a teenager. (Unless, of course, this was a part of her story, and she was, for example, aging backward, à la Benjamin Button.)
So, what about those novels written from the perspective of an adult protagonist reflecting back on his/her youth? Those are considered adult fiction.
Take Stephen King’s novellaThe Body,for example. This is a story about a group of 12-year-old boys that set out to find a dead body. It is told through the lens of Gordie, one of the central characters, all grown up. Reflecting back on this adventure, Gordie breaks the storyline here and there to insert thoughts from his adult perspective.
While this is appreciated by an older reader, it wouldn’t fly with a teen. Think about it. Teens do not read novels to be verbally slapped on the wrist by a “wise narrator.” They read to understand their friends, their frenemies, and, most of all, themselves. They’re looking to become empowered in their personal storiesthrough story.
YA writers take note: your goal should be to empower teen readers, not patronize them.
Now that we know what YA fiction is, let’s get clear on…
In a nutshell: sales.
When your book goes to market, your publisher will need to be able to define your audience clearly. This is so they can go on to target it effectively, and sell your books!
Many writers say they "don't care" about sales, that they're only concerned with the art, and that if their books are meant to find an audience, they will.
And while that may be the case for you (how could I say otherwise?), most writers, when they face the music, do care about sales. If not because they want to be the next Victoria Aveyard, then because they want their stories to reach as many readers as possible.
This can be scary to admit, because as long as you put it out there that you want your book to sell well, therein lies the possibility of failing to accomplish said goal.
But fear should never prevent you from going after what you want.
Plus, who says you'll fail?
Labelling your book appropriately will help ensure the opposite effect: your book's success.
Yes, there are adults that read YA, and teens that read adult fiction. But those will be the outliers—the readers that are coming to your book through recommendation, not targeted marketing.
In order to get your book into the hands of the readers that will most appreciate your story, it needs to be labelled appropriately.
On average, YA fiction lies somewhere between 47,000 and 80,000 words. The only genres where it’s considered “acceptable” by most to write past 80K are science fiction and fantasy, because of the world-building required.
Writing above 100K is a risk, especially for debut authors. Unless you have a large platform that can be leveraged to help you sell your book, or social proof through Wattpad that your story is a page-turner, prospective publishers are going to be weary of investing in your book.
This isn’t because they’re bad people. It’s because publishers are the ones shelling out for each page printed. The lower your page count, the less of an upfront investment it is for them. Remember, you want to make your book an easy sell. So, steer clear of whoppers.
At least, until you build your cult following.
And on that note…
For readers to be invested in your story, they need to be able to see themselves in your characters. Books with characters that are too perfect or too flat are usually abandoned.
They don’t resonate. Teens are experiencing all sorts of difficulties in their day to day lives—from bullying, to gossip, to drugs, to assault, to deep depression, isolation, and so on. They don’t want overly polished plots and people. They want the messy, real deal.
Think of A Court of Thorns and Roses. Sarah J. Maas's main character Feyre is far from the polished, prototypical female lead. She is tough. And not just tough in the heroic sense. Tough, too, in the I-have-a-dark-side-so-you-better-not-mess-with-me kind of way. Us readers are exposed to her underbelly. And we are drawn to it, because we see ourselves reflected in it. We're not perfect, and neither is Feyre. We love her for this.
The first step in creating characters that your readers can relate to is in the details. Dig well past stereotypes until you find traits and backstories that take your characters into the grey zone.
Here’s what that means.
Rather than paint your antagonist into a two-dimensional black hole (think: an out-and-out psychopath), give your antagonist some redeeming, even likeable qualities.
Like, for example, as Sarah J. Maas did with her character Manon Blackbeak in her novel Throne of Glass. Manon is, at the outset, ruthless, killing men to drink their blood. But, over time, readers come to see she has a rather tender heart—exposed when she risks everything to save Elide, Asterin, the Thirteen, and Dorian.
On the flip side, when it comes to your protagonist, you'll want to give him or her deeper flaws. These will have your reader questioning their own support for your protagonist.
Look to Caroline Kepnes. She does this well in the bookYou. Readers are at once sympathetic to Joe Goldberg and disgusted by his behaviour. They can't figure out if they're on his side, or not. Confusion aside, it's virtually guaranteed, when you do this, your readers will be intrigued. And glued to the page.
If your characters still aren’t connecting to your readers, you may be “protecting” them. That is, you may be keeping them from getting too hurt. This is a problem because what that translates to is you are creating lives too shiny for readers and their gritty reality to identify with. This causes a disconnect, which leads to a lack of interest for readers.
Guilty of this? Don’t kick yourself. You’re in good company. Early drafts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian were, well, boring. Characters were indifferent when they should’ve been angry, and overly generous when they should’ve been selfish.
So, how did McCarthy write the lean nightmare that we know and love today? He stopped steering his characters away from the dark alley. He let them stumble and feel pain.
Follow his lead. Take your characters to a place that scares you. You probably already have something coming to mind right now as you read this. Don’t you?
Teens want to read stories that show them they aren’t alone, but this doesn’t mean they need to lead theexact same lives as the characters in your story. They just need to see their struggles in the characters.
Look at Mateo Torrez in Adam Silvera's They Both Die At The End, for example. Many of us can relate to his having anxiety, and his resultant decision to spend the majority of his time in the blogosphere.
And, I'd venture to bet, we can all, especially in the day and age of the Pandemic, relate to Mateo's parallel feeling: that the online world isn't enough, and that he needs to socialize in the real world, in spite of his anxiety.
So, while we may not all receive calls from Death-Cast telling us we're going to die today (let's keep our fingers crossed on that one, anyway), we can relate to Mateo's feelings, his emotional truth.
Or, look atHarry Potter. Most of us can relate to Harry. Even if we’ll never be involved in a duel with Lord Voldemort, we can still understand his pain. We’ve all lost people we’ve loved and have, at some point or another, felt like a misfit.
Take note: most teens struggle with identity. They’re asking, either consciously or subconsciously, all the time, “Who am I?” “Who should I be?” “How should I behave?”
If this doesn’t resonate with you, think about what does. What are some pain points you’re familiar with? You’ll be powerful when you can zero in on these.
Don’t be afraid if they’re “heavy.” Embrace challenging subject matter. As long as you’re not trying to be “edgy” or create cheap shock value, you should be well received. Come from a place of honesty. If your mind is drawing a blank on your past struggles, stay tuned for a number of techniques you can use.
In sum, the key to making sure your readers care about your story lies in exposing the full spectrum of your characters’ emotional truth, and allowing them, like any good parent, to fall down, get hurt, and then get back up again.
Authors come off as authentic and likeable to YA readers when they accurately capture their readers’ range of thoughts, feelings, and experiences in their day to day lives.
Personal growth is a big part of what differentiates YA and adult stories. Why? Think back to when you were a teen. For most, this was a period ofexponential growth because life was a minefield of firsts.
Throughout your book, your protagonist should be growing up, actively transforming in front of the reader. As he or she learns, grows and changes, because of the events experienced in your book, your reader should be gaining insight, too.
How do you highlight this growth in your plot? Create complications and then use these as opportunities to facilitate your protagonist’s learning. If you need ideas, think about where tension came from when you were young. Common culprits are identity, but also relationships and change.
A fight with a friend, for example, can be insightful for your character—especially if it’s caused because your character blew a comment out of proportion, and is forced to reflect on why he or she did that. This can unroot a suppressed pain point your protagonist now has to confront.
Or, you could have a character that meets another character that mirrors back what they've been unwilling to look at in themselves. For instance, maybe your main character is queer but has been hiding from this truth. Having said character meet an out and proud queer character will encourage your character to, perhaps unconsciously at first, begin to discover this hidden aspect of self.
Another example is your character being forced to change schools. Moving away from friends is a trigger for many teens who tend to use this as an opportunity to “start fresh”— to consider how they want to show up in their “new life” and reflect on who they want to be.
Scenes like these are powerful for your readers. They show how a collection of moments like those plotted in your storyline make an impact, shape us into the people we become.
With that eye opening, readers are encouraged to look inwards, at themselves, at what the plot points of their unique lives look like, and who they’ve become as a result. This is a large part of the power of story.
Don’t forget to be concise with your character’s reflections. Remember that YA is meant to be plot-driven. To ensure you’re keeping your story from getting too fatty, ask yourself of every scene:
As mentioned earlier, a YA novel cannot be told from the point of view of a wise, full blown adult. It has to be told from the point of view of a teen(s) to maintain integrity.
If it's been a long time since you've been a teenager yourself, read on. The following is what the authors of the best YA books nail, which keeps their fanbase intrigued, loyal, and growing.
Most teens exaggerate. A lot. Like,one thousand times a day. Teens live in a heightened state of emotion, and exaggeration showcases that, compounded by their tendency to blurt things out before first thinking and putting them into perspective.
Dialogue not onlycan run, be cut short prematurely, or repeat senselessly in YA—they actuallyshould. Teens aren’t precious with their grammar. Reflect that.
Be mindful of adjusting to your target. If you’re writing for younger teens, shorter, more declarative sentences work best, split up into many small paragraphs. For the older set, complex sentences and longer paragraphs are fair game.
We mentioned it once, but we’ll say it again. Avoid infusing any adult wisdom/analysis into your YA novel. Though typically self-absorbed, teens aren’t often too self-aware, nor do they consider why others may be acting the way they are. Portray them honestly.
For example, your character would likely have an emotional reaction to her friend ignoring her. She’d get angry or feel hurt. She wouldnotthoughtfully ponder what may be wrong in her friend’s life causing her to behave this way.
If you’re feeling unsure of your portrayal of your characters, get in touch with your young, awkward, vulnerable self. The one that felt unsure, insecure, and/or naively invincible. If you can find a memory that cracked you open and made you see the world in a new light, dig into it. Write from this place. Let this experience show up in your work.
If you have them, unearth old diaries and read your entries. If you don’t, try people-watching. Studying teens out and about can help you remember what it’s like to be one of them. At the very least, take notes and put them to use.
Lots of authors resort to slang to connect with their readers. Don’t. Slang dates books. Instead, use simple words. Ask yourself if a person the age of your characters would really talk in the way you’ve just written, and if a reader who’s your protagonist’s age would be able to understand.
Ah, thekernel of hope.
While no teen today wants to read a book with a boring, fairytale ending, optimismmust exist in your book’s close. For instance, while your main character may not sky rocket from an anti-social leper to being the most popular kid in school, you’ll want to give him/her a friend or two by the end.
Consider the popularSchool For Good And Evilseries. It opens portraying Agatha as grumpy, friendless, and insecure. Over time though, we see the humour in her grumpiness. We see her find a friend in Sophie. And, slowly, we witness her gain self-confidence, too.
Another example is found inThirteen Reasons Why.The story ends with Clay being unable to save the protagonist from ending her life. Although we feel his intense regret for not having tried harder to help her, there is a silver lining.
On the novel’s final page, Clay encounters another classmate that he is worried about. Unlike before, he doesn’t let the chance to help slip by. Motivated by Hannah’s story and his hope for a better outcome, he seizes the moment, and saves a life.
This optimism is crucial because your readers are impressionable. As an author, you’re a figure of indirect authority in their lives. It is your duty to give them a reason to wake up tomorrow, to know that although things get difficult, there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
We hope you found this guide insightful and actionable. Now, it’s time to gather your notes and take a well-deserved break.
After that, don’t hesitate. Take what you’ve learned here and apply it to your story. If you need more direct help with your particular book, we’re here to support you.
Here’s how we at So You Want to Write? can assist:
Or, if you’re just in need of regular motivation and helpful tips, you can start simply by joining our email list.
Either way, we hope to hear from you soon.
January 19, 2022
Can an entire chapter of 6.5 pages have only narrative or should there be dialogue in each and every chapter of a YA novel? There’s lots of action, it’s just described in narrative. There’s a tiny scene of dialogue at the very end. Is that okay or should I rewrite it to have way more dialogue? Thanks.
January 06, 2021
Thanks for your questions. In response…
1. The reason people say 1st person, present tense is “best” comes down to the fact that most of the time this creates greater immediacy, which young readers (esp. these days with the shortening of attention span) typically prefer.
That said, some prefer third person, past tense for the richness this style can lend. We see this more in the European markets, especially with readers who grew up on classics.
So, it isn’t cut and dry. It does depend ultimately on your market. Go with your gut, and with your editor/beta readers/agent’s feedback.
2. Yes, this is acceptable. There are lots of YA books that do multiple POVs, including the School For Good And Evil series, Six of Crows, Eleanor and Park, A Step Toward Falling, An Ember In The Ashes, etc.
Some things to ask yourself: Why am I writing in multiple POV? Does the story necessitate this? If so, all good.
If not, ask: Why have I structured my story in this way? Am I too scared to dive into the one character’s POV? Why?
January 05, 2021
Thank you for the helpful advice. I have two published novels and one finished but not yet published novel, all in different genres. I am working on the third draft of my first YA novel. I have two questions: (1) I have been told that typically a YA novel is first person and present tense. Does that mean my MS with third person and past tense is less marketable? (2) My YA protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl with the dominant point of view, but the story is told from several points of view. Is this acceptable in the YA marketplace? Jim Lee
October 26, 2020
I was on the fence about whether my trilogy was YA fiction. After reading this wonderful guide, I know I’m closer to the mark of YA fiction than I thought. Thanks so much for this. It is a light in dark places.
Comments will be approved before showing up.
January 31, 2023 5 min readRead More
November 07, 2022 4 min read
October 31, 2022 7 min read
May 09, 2022
I’m new. Very new. I’ve only begun to write what I hope will become a shed out YA series.
I am writing from several characters points of view and want to use one of the main characters father as one of them. He isn’t very well spoken or a genius or anything and I wanted kids read something from an adults perspective and learn why we may do the things we do.
Is this wrong?