Breaking Down YA

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YA fiction represents one of the biggest and most popular branches of modern fiction. Although technically designed to appeal to a younger audience, these books appeal to tons of demographics and have fueled a host of Hollywood blockbuster series. So, how do you add your own work to the mix?

Write Age-Appropriate Characters

A key element to essentially every successful YA novel and series is the age of the characters. YA’s target audience is in a tricky point in life, and while all audiences relate best to people who look or act like they do, this is especially true of teenagers. Naturally, lots of other demographics enjoy YA novels, but they aren’t technically the target audience for this genre, and you must write accordingly.

Create characters teenagers will like. That means writing teenage characters. Since high school is the focus of most teenagers’ lives, classroom settings and school-like competitions also make compelling settings. Find characters that belong there and you’ll be off to a great start.

Don’t Be Afraid of Heavy Subject Matter

Despite the fact that so many YA stories involve school, they frequently involve very deep concepts and serious material. The Hunger Games dealt with the ethics of revolution, social structure, and violence. Holly Black’s Modern Tales of Faerie series addresses everything from addiction to systemic discrimination and child abuse and neglect.

Remember that your audience consists of young adults. They have more real world experience than you may assume, and they appreciate literature that doesn’t present an artificially simplified or polished world. Teenagers discuss modern politics in class. Many have jobs, and plenty of young people have their first romantic and/or sexual relationships in high school.

Understand Genre Conventions and Why They Do/Don’t Work

You probably already know the classic YA story by heart now. There’s a girl/boy who gets thrown into some kind of strange situation or adventure involving another mysterious boy/girl. The twist? They have a childhood flame still pining after them at home! The fate of the world matters, of course, but not as much as the cliched love triangle between the loveable hero, mr./ms. Tall-dark-and-handsome, and the boy/girl next door.

Just like adult bodice-rippers, this formula works for a reason. It makes for great escapist reading with the kind of drama kids in high school have probably witnessed if not participated in. It isn’t terribly original, but if you want something that will appeal to a wide audience, then there’s nothing wrong with using this roadmap. If you know your plot, setting, or individual characters are a bit outside genre norms, and you want to give readers something comfortable to hold onto, this outline may help too.

Of course, don’t be afraid to spit in the face of genre conventions and go your own way. Really, so long as you are telling a story about a teenager or young adult to a young adult audience, you’re writing YA fiction. It’s yours to change as you please.

Know the Market

There are two sides to this point. First of all, if you write a lot and turn out a book every year or so, there’s nothing wrong with taking a hint from the bestseller lists. See what people are reading, what teenagers like, and use those ideas to fuel your next novel.

However, you should never feel like you must warp and twist your story to fit current trends. Popular fiction changes. Major themes and flavors come and go. Just think of vampire fiction. It was everywhere for a while. Then there was dystopian fiction flooding the shelves. Those trends have been in vogue before, and they will be again. So writing what you want and trust that the ideal market will appear eventually. What’s most important is to write a good a novel.

Ultimately, the rules of YA fiction are no different than those of any other genre. You have clichés and genre staples to work with, but you can leave them in the dust if you choose. The defining aspect of YA fiction is its audience. What element will you bring into your YA novel that will set it apart from the rest?


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