Here are Five Elements of Young Adult Stories that Resonate
I may be twenty-three with a bachelor’s degree, but my favorite category of fiction is young adult. Am I an overgrown teenager in denial about my adult status, desperately holding onto my youth? No. Am I a passionate reader and writer endlessly enthralled with the universal longing and frustration that is the coming-of-age process? Yes – absolutely, a billion times yes.
So what is it exactly, about the young adult category that speaks to my heart more than anything else? To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure. I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m still very much coming-of-age myself. It could be the plot lines of YA are often much more nuanced and creative than most adult books. Regardless, I just about exclusively focus on young adult books for leisure reading.
It’s safe to say that I’m somewhat an aficionado of all things YA. Below, I’ve outlined the five elements that I’m convinced are crucial for a successful teen-centered plot:
1. Romance in Young Adult Stories
Hormones are always, universally, a part of growing up. And with those, come all those fuzzy feelings that are amazing, confusing, and downright frustrating. I’m not saying it should be graphic – I’ve actually found the most impactful romance scenes leave a lot to the imagination. Plus, since YA books are geared toward the teen audience, they’re better off leaving most of the heat for new adult or adult novels.
The one caveat I have about YA romance is that it should feel real. As much as I love books by John Green, those romances are often so idyllic that they can be a bit irritating to read (unless you’re in a particular mood for the fluffy, soft, mushy-gushy glittering fairytale stuff). I love reading and writing romance that highlights the grit, anxiety, and immaturity that comes with the developmental ages.
The more awkward, the better! Bonus points if you can work in a sloppy kiss fumbled up by braces or some other equally depressing orthodontic contraption. If you’re interested in writing romance for adults, check out this post: Want to Write a Romance? Here’s What You Need to Know.
It sounds cliché, I know, but the “finding yourself” trope is a crucial one. Teenage brains are so busy redirecting overwhelming emotions and functioning in new ways, that it’s notoriously easy for characters to lose themselves in that process. I personally, have adopted a greater emphasis on the sense of “becoming” versus “finding” yourself. But at the end of the day, your character has to make this journey alone. Maybe they experiment with new hobbies, social groups, or ideas that change their worldview. Challenge what they believe, feel, and desire by flipping everything upside-down.
Most teenagers have at least one bestie. It’s a common YA trope, but it also signals a lot about your character. Are they a loner with one frenemy who sticks around despite the insecure protagonist who keeps pushing them away? Or are they a social butterfly with the whole school watching their every move? There are endless opportunities to signal personalities and social dynamics through a structured friendship context.
Make your character feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Maybe their dream is within reach, but they’d have to blatantly upset their family to achieve it. Or maybe they’re offered a unique opportunity, but it collides with their personal beliefs. Make them squirm. A little pressure produces diamonds!
5. Lessons Learned
That being said, don’t start preaching at your character or have them speak directly to your reader. Push those developing brains into a new direction that challenges them, and then have them emerge through the other end with a new perspective.
The best life lessons emerge from a struggle – be it dashed dreams, loss, or failure. Put your protagonist through the wringer, and let them see what they’re made of. At the end of the day, they’ll be better for it. Or not, if they’re especially awful, but that might just mean they’ve become your antagonist after all. If that happens, I’d recommend rearranging your character dynamics to let your baddie be absolutely despicable. This way, your darling protagonist can truly shine, even if it’s a different character than you originally intended.