Young Adult Fiction, also sometimes called YA Fiction, is a hot market to be in right now. It’s estimated that more than 10,000 new young adult titles were released just in the year 2012. Among these were “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin X and “Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip” by Jordan Sonnenblick.
I’ve taken a closer look at common tropes and elements found throughout Young Adult fiction to help you write it.
Internal dialogue is a common part of YA fiction, but there’s nothing more painful than seeing internal dialogue written badly. Readers want to see something realistic, so never try too hard to sound “cool” or “young” or “hip” or anything, really. Most of the time, teenagers talk just the way adults do, give or take a few slang terms. Just make sure your language is right for this decade.
If you feel out of touch, read other YA fiction (see the resources at the end of this article) to find out how other writers are approaching it, read through message boards and social media (this is how people tend to really talk) and interview sources – as a writer, surely you can find someone who is around nineteen who can tell you if teenagers really still say that.
Internal dialogue allows you to get under the skin of your characters more, and expose the character’s innards more to your readers. Use it.
Drugs are a very real thing, and it’s something that most people will encounter at some point in their teenage years. This is something you have to touch on carefully when you do: There are a lot of stories that don’t mention or allude to drug use at all – and they don’t really need to.
If you do touch on drug use, then represent it realistically. Realize that most of the information people have had in their head about drugs have been inaccurate, and a lot of research has changed. Check up your current facts first, and speak to people who have actually taken the drugs – and we don’t just mean people who advertise themselves as reformed addicts.
It’s a hard topic to write about, so approach it the right way if you’re going to approach it at all.
For writing about drugs, go to the effort of conducting the interviews and looking up the research, the facts, the usage and the slang terms.
Parental Conflict and Divorce
Do you remember how you felt about your parents as a young adult? For most people, it’s a normal emotion – and it’s generally something part of YA fiction. This creates a lot of natural conflict. Some parents and teenagers get along just fine, others don’t – but keep this in mind as you write your characters and your plot.
Divorce is another very real statistic that can add to the parental conflict that’s seen in a YA story, and it’s commonly seen in plenty of YA books as a plot device – just because it’s a real-life thing that affects a large percentage of people.
Relationships, Romance and Sex
Relationships and sex have their place in YA fiction just as they do in real-life, though it’s a subject that you should approach with care when it comes to writing YA fiction – because it could turn out to be illegal.
You want to represent sex and sexual development realistically – as do you the internal dialogue about it. Sometimes this means saying four-letter words, other times it doesn’t. It’s up to your story, your characters and the reader you’re aiming the story at.
Sex in YA fiction has been the subject of plenty of controversy. It can be a very useful plot device, but should not be approached from an overly erotic standpoint for YA fiction – in blunt terms, you’re not writing YA fiction to get teenagers off.
This article in USA Today references a study which found that about half of friendships made during high school didn’t last for a full academic year. This is something that reflects in real-life, and something you should bring through in your fiction.
Some friendships will last a lifetime – most won’t. People form friendships, people lose friendships, some friends are trustworthy and others aren’t. There’s not a fiction book on this earth that did not have relationships between people, friends and enemies as plot points – and it’s worth a lot when you’re penning your fiction.
Relocation and Disruption
Relocation and disruption of routine are common topics that show up in YA fiction: How many of the Goosebumps books started off with a character moving to a new house or neighbourhood? This was for more than just the purposes of it being great for horror.
Relocation, moving from one house to another, is something that happens to a lot of people during their teenage years, and it’s something that sticks out – so naturally, it’s also a common plot point, and for many writers it’s a great way to kick off their story.
Psychologically, moving house is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to someone, next to the death of a loved one and a divorce. It’s bound to disrupt friendships, routine and life – represent this accurately in your work.
Sexual orientation is a topic that comes into focus when people enter puberty. This is the point in time where people start to question what their sexual orientation is in the first place, and where teenagers start to explore their sexual identity more.
Love, sexual orientation, sex and confusion all go together while you’re still trying to find your feet in life. You don’t have to make a character’s sexual orientation the focus of the plot, though you would be a fool if you wrote an entire story without considering characters and their sexual orientations first.
Peer pressure is often dealt with in YA fiction, though you want to make sure that you deal with it in a realistic way. Again, presenting peer pressure in fiction is something that can easily come across as trying to preach to the reader if you’re doing it with some kind of “moral lesson” behind the story.
The best approach you can take to peer pressure is the fact that it happens from several different fronts, including friends and parents, and it’s up to you to decide how your characters will handle it.
Make it realistic, and if you’re having trouble defining this, then ask someone you know how they would react in a situation like that, or put yourself in your character’s shoes.
Death and Loss
Death and loss is a common element seen in YA fiction. Sometimes the story only touches upon a near-death experience instead. Why? Death and loss are as common in real-life, too, and most people remember starting to understand grief for the first time at some point during their teenage years.
It’s the time where you might experience a friend dying for the first time, or even a parent or grandparent: This, and the emotions surrounding death, loss and grief are common in YA fiction for this reason – but should never be overused or dramatized to the point where characters are dying on every second page of the story.
Destroying YA Fiction Completely: How Not To
A lot can be said for YA fiction that doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. You want to avoid that as a writer.
If you’re setting out to write YA fiction with some kind of moral lesson in mind at the end, stop right there. Real life doesn’t come with moral lessons to keep you away from stress, drugs, promiscuous sex, and neither should your books. Cause and effect is as moral as you should go when you pen your plot, anything else will seem preachy.
YA fiction that tries too hard to make a conversation seem “young and cool” will backfire. Want to know how kids and teenagers talk? Then go out and talk to them. Everyone’s got a nephew, a friend with a kid, something relatable - and sometimes they also make great beta readers.
More about the Market
According to Amazon.com, the best selling Young Adult fiction titles of all time are “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, “The Hobbit”, “The Outsider”, “The Little Prince” and “The President is Missing.” This should tell you either that Amazon’s system has no idea what constitutes what young adult fiction is – or that young adult fiction is a very broad genre.
What do young adults read, and what falls into the realm of Young Adult fiction?
Well, what the heck did you enjoy reading at that age, and in retrospect, what kind of thing do you wish you could have read at that age? This is a great starting question for plenty of writers who are still finding their feet in the genre.
Simply, young adults read the same thing as older adults. They want a good story about topics and characters they give a damn about.
Resources for YA Fiction Writers
Need some more resources for writing YA fiction? Take a closer look at some of these articles and websites.
- The 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time (Time Magazine)
- Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Amazon)
- The Most Popular Authors in “Teen & Young Adult Books” (Amazon)
- The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)
- YALSA Book Finder (YALSA)
- The Canadian Young Adult Book Award (Canadian Library Association)
- A Brief History of Young Adult Literature (BBC)