How to Write Young Adult Novels
You recognize it when you see it: one ordinary teenager undergoes tumultuous circumstances with their friends or family by their side. The change can arise from attempting to overthrow a fascist government, keep up with the troubles of high school life, or even the general process of growing up. To boil it down to one thing, young adult fiction centres around a teenage protagonist and their journey towards realising the nature of who they are as an individual.
The thing about young adult fiction (often called YA) is that it is not a genre by itself. If anything, it contains several genres within it. Think about the Divergent trilogy: while it can typically be called a work of science fiction, it is also YA fiction because of its focus on a teenager and the social and personal change that progresses through the series. Similarly, when looking at a book like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, one that deals typically with the American high school experience and is what can be called a coming-of-age story, it is also a work of YA fiction. Truthfully, there are no specific parameters for what makes up young adult fiction except for its nature of focusing on the story of a teenager directed towards readers who are teenagers themselves. While there is no way to outline all that really goes into a YA novel since there aren’t any set attributes, there can however be certain broad aspects or themes that can be said to make up the core of what YA fiction deals with. A YA fiction typically consists of the following factors:
Change is essential to a YA story and it comes in several forms. What is important is to remember that it sets the premise for the plot despite the way in which it may progress. Simply put, the kind of change in a YA story is of two kinds:
- Personal Change: YA fiction is often interchangeably used with coming-of-age novels. In reality, coming-of-age stories form only a part of YA fiction. However, they capture the gist of what YA stories typically entail: personal change for the teenage protagonist. Whether it may be about dealing with one’s identity, coming to terms with a broken family or friendship, or even going through life-altering events like death or crime that will propel them into adulthood – the teenage protagonist struggles to deal with certain posed problems at the end of which they become a more mature version of themself.
- Social Change: Think of all those trilogies that flooded the book market sometime last decade. Whether it was The Hunger Games or even as far back as Harry Potter, these teen protagonists were in the middle of conducting a revolution that ultimately led to a severe change in society. YA novels that focus on social problems, popularly termed as ‘problem novels’ display the protagonist gunning to create good change in the society with help from friends and relatives around them.
Now, remember, change of whichever kind sets the fundamental premise for the story. All else that the plot contains falls under the conditions required for this change to manifest.
It may be the troubles of a transformed family, an established or even a newfound friendship, or a love interest – all these make up the relations that the teen protagonist is tethered to. All the transformation, whether inner or outer, that the protagonist goes through, occurs as prompted by the relationships that they are a part of. Especially with novels set in the real world with the main character still in school, the primary plot point resulting in change is more often related to them dealing with some or another relationship. The aspect of the protagonist juggling any relationships can either be at the forefront and running the plot or they can be a part of the background and form subplots. Either way, a YA protagonist is never alone and is always motivated by varied relationships.
Much of what problem novels as part of YA fiction deal with are the aspect of identity. Earlier, as YA narratives were limited largely to white characters, this probing of identity did not span the extents of culture much and was limited only to the ‘normal’ experiences of the protagonist. However, now that YA narratives have expanded to include the experiences of people of colour (POC), YA POC protagonists are shown to deal with the everyday experiences associate with their race and experiences as children of immigrants. Novels like The Hate U Give deal with more complex, real-life experiences that hit closer to the reality of police brutality in the USA. These types of YA novels that fall on the spectrum of more grave troubles of teens touch upon varied experiences of POC teens. On the other hand, they can also focus on more ‘normal’ and lighter experiences such as with the American-Korean protagonist in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Either way, the core sentiments of searching for and understanding one’s identity is an essential factor that can form the primary plot of a YA novel. In the end, it ensures change, however light or severe.
It is these three that form the essential factors that help distinguish a particular teen-led novel as being YA fiction. Sure, they are all themes more than anything. So, what about the setting, characters, and plot?
As established, Young Adult fiction is not a genre. It’s simply the name for a particular kind of novels that focus on adolescent experiences and mark a shift from childhood to adulthood both within their protagonist and in their target reader who is also deemed to be an adolescent. So, whether a writer decides to set their story in a fantasy world full of made-up creatures or in a faraway planet floating in space, or just in the most normal place in the world – they would all still count as YA fiction. Accordingly, the plots can be magical or mythical or plain real; they could fall into whichever genre ranging from science fiction to horror. What sets it apart as a YA novel would be the previously outlined themes in combination with a teenage protagonist.
Probably one of the best things about YA fiction is the unlimited freedom that it gives the writer in the kind of story that they wish to pen. No matter the kind of setting or character profiles, no matter the type of plot or pattern of storytelling, as long as it is headlined by a young teenager who in some way undergoes the processes of emotional change and growth, it can be classified and known as YA fiction.