YA versus Adult Fiction: What’s the Difference?

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YA and Adult fiction are not just bookstore labels, there are some key differences that separate the two genres. But how alike are they and is there another genre between the two? Understanding the subtleties of the division will not only help you hone your story, it will also help you market it better. 

Why It Matters

Before we get into the actual differences between YA and Adult Fiction, let’s discuss the importance of separating the two. As a writer, having a clear picture of what divides the two genres will help you write a better, audience-targeted novel. If you want to write a book for the sake of writing a book, so be it. If you want to sell your book, that’s another matter. But don’t just take my word for it, here’s a quote from former literary agent, Nathan Bransford:

I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because literary agents don’t usually handle both YA and adult books and it’s virtually impossible to pitch a “crossover” book.

Nathan Bransford

Age is More than a Number

A good rule of thumb is this: The age of your protagonist will determine the genre. A Young Adult’s main character should normally be between the ages of 15 and 19. Below the age of 15, you’re looking at a Middle-Grade Fiction (MG) categorization. 

The age of the protagonist will also dictate the wants, needs, and motivations of the main character and this will change the overall tone of the book. 

YA Voice and Adult Voice – Can You Tell the Difference?

Think of yourself at age 15. If you’re an adult, think about your life now. If you’re like me, they feel like two different lifetimes. The responsibilities and stressors of adulthood are entirely different than those of a teenager. Therefore, the main character will view the world in a very different way. 

Again, unless you’re a teen writing as a teen (and if so, good for you for reading articles like this one!), you’re an adult writing as a teen and you need to act like one. For homework, find two books that are similar and take note of how they’re alike and different. Pay special attention to voice, the wants, needs, and motivations of the main character, as well as the overall tone of the book.

Here are two books with similar subjects (females, magic, witches, families) to get you started:

The Pacing is Different

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but the stories in YA novels tend to unfold at a faster rate. The reason for this is attention span. There are exceptions to this rule, but in most cases, adults can handle a slower build-up and a longer story structure at a slower pace. 

As a result of this pacing difference, word count expectations are different for each of the two genres. In the publishing industry, there are word count standards. Of course, there are outlying exceptions to the rule, but you need to know the rules before you go and break them. Typically, a YA book will fall between 40,000 and 60,000 whereas adult novels can run between 50,000-125,000.

What Lies Betwixt the Two?

The answer is New Adult, also known as NA. This is a relatively new genre and it encompasses the experience of those main characters whose age runs between 18 and 25. According to a Guardian article:

The term new adult was coined in 2009 by US publisher St Martin’s press in an attempt to find fiction that relates to readers who are leaving school and going to university – so these books would relate to: dealing with college/university, first serious relationships, finding jobs, making money, meeting demands of being new adults.

Briony Chappell

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

1 Comment

  1. You made a good point that even if YA novels can be written by adults, it still comes down to voice in how adult fiction differs from it. Personally, I love reading adult romantic thriller novels. Those kinds of novels really show how adult sensibilities are different from those of teenagers.

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