Voice is that elusive “it” factor that all agents and publishers say they’re looking for—especially in YA manuscripts. But what is voice, exactly?
The definition is squishy, and it varies depending on who you ask, so I’ll give you mine. Voice is the way a story is told.
If the novel is written in third person, voice is how the author tells the story. It’s the words she chooses, it’s the observations she makes, it’s what her characters notice. If a novel is written in first person, voice is how the narrator tells the story. Since young adult novels are often told in first person, understanding your main character’s way of looking at the world is required for nailing “voice.”
Voice is Personality
In YA, voice is inexorably linked to the personality of the main character. To find voice, reframe the question. What’s your main character’s personality? Is she bold and brash? Quiet on the outside but sarcastic on the inside? Is she a rule-follower? A class clown?
Use these traits as a guide. How would a class clown describe a lunchroom versus the way a timid loner would? First-person narrative means every interaction with another person, every description of action or scene is filtered through the eyes of your main character. Better get to know him.
Voice Has Emotion
I like YA because the emotion is always urgent. We’re in the head of the narrator, so we know exactly what she thinks when her crush pretends to not know her. She’s devastated. Or she’s ready for revenge. Or she retreats. Either way, there’s a reaction. There’s a constant reaction because we’re riding around in the head of the main character.
The end result is that everything in the story is high stakes, whether it’s a dystopian—literal end of the world—or a romance. That’s what makes these books interesting. Each plot point matters. We the reader know it does because of the way the narrator explains it. This is voice.
Voice is Age Appropriate
I wrote a post about successful YA books in which I said a writer should never patronize teenagers. I stand by that. When I say that voice should be age-appropriate, I mean that adults writing YA have to remind themselves that 16-year-olds look at the world in a different way than a 36-year-old does. No matter how mature or well-reasoned someone is, those twenty extra years change things. Perspective is different. The emotional stakes are simply higher when someone is experiencing adult situations for the first time. Make sure that comes though in the voice.
Voice is Dynamic
Most YA novels are, to one degree or another, coming-of-age tales. In fact, this is my favorite thing about reading YA. I love to remember how I felt at that age when life was super intense, everything was possible, and I didn’t know what would happen next. I also like remembering the life lessons I learned along the way.
Usually a YA protagonist changes in the course of a novel. This change doesn’t have to result in making better decisions or “maturing,” but there’s almost always a shift. The way your main character responds to the events in the book is reflected in her voice. Does she gain or lose confidence? Is he better or worse at handling conflict?
Voice makes a novel interesting. It gives your story personality. I remember when I was a teenager, my mom used tell me (when I was being grounded) that I wasn’t being punished for what I said, it was how I said it. Writing YA is the same: how you say it is everything.