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Young adult books, which are books for and about teenagers, have been around for a long while – at least in some capacity. But it wasn’t until the mid-aughts that the YA category became a real force to be reckoned with in the publishing world.

Say what you will about Twilight, but Stephenie Meyer’s breakout series featuring a broody teenage vampire and the human girl who loves him, injected the YA category with some much-needed adrenaline. After that juggernaut came The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hate U Give—and so many more titles that have captivated the hearts and minds of young readers.

Trends in YA come and go, from vampires to dystopia to rom-coms, but one thing is certain: There will always be more teens, and they will always want more books to read.

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What Is Young Adult Fiction?

twilight books
Source: Darren Barefoot via Flickr
The Twilight series brought YA fiction to the forefront of the publishing world.

The first thing to know is that young adult fiction is about, and for, teenagers. The term “young adult” can be a little deceptive, as some people interpret books with characters in their early 20s to be young adult fiction. While teens certainly can read books about adults, or books about middle-schoolers, that does not make those books YA. Young adult is a strictly teenage category.

Similarly, a book can be written about teenagers, but not necessarily for teenagers.

For a book to be YA, the main characters themselves must be in their teens, and the book must have been written with a teenage audience in mind. 

Age Range

YA can cover books for and about anyone from age 13 to 19. However, the vast majority of protagonists in YA books are between 16 and 18 years old. There has been some pushback to include younger teens in books, but it has yet to really play out in traditionally published YA. Similarly, there’s recently been more inclusion of older teens in YA books, such as early college students. But by and large, if you pick up a YA book, you will generally find a high school-aged protagonist. 

YA Novels

Writing for teenagers is a huge responsibility. YA writers have just as much talent and drive as adult fiction writers, and YA novels can be as equally beautifully written and well-crafted as their adult counterparts. But there are definitely a few things you need to keep in mind if you’re new to the age category.

How to Write Young Adult Novels

YA novels are about all kinds of things. But one central thread, regardless of genre, is that YA fiction tends to focus on the protagonist’s coming of age. In other words, they’re learning and growing throughout the novel to come to a different understanding of themselves, the world, or both, by the end of the book.

YA novels tend to be faster-paced and shorter than adult novels and contain elements that appeal to teens, from common tropes to relatable characters to experiences that teens have recently or will soon be having. 

YA books are also typically written in a distinctive voice. Many, though not all, are written in first person, giving the reader an up-close look into the teenage mind. A good chunk of them are also written in present tense, making the immediacy of the action apparent. With that said, there are also plenty of third-person, past-tense YA novels out there, so find the voice and tense that best serves your story.

How do you do that? First of all, by reading widely. There are people who haven’t read a YA novel in decades and believe their knowledge of The Catcher in the Rye is sufficient enough to write a YA novel. While reading the YA classics is definitely beneficial, YA is an age category that moves fast. If you’re looking to publish YA now, it’s essential to be up-to-date on current market trends.

Now, let’s go more in-depth into the elements you might include in your YA novel.

Young Adult Tropes

YA fiction is filled with popular tropes. Here are just some of them:

Romance

Romance is included in many, but certainly not all, YA novels. First loves are a popular trope, given that many people experience falling in love for the first time during their teenage years. Within that category, there are also many popular sub-tropes, such as:

  • Love triangles, in which the protagonist must choose between two love interests
  • Friends to lovers, in which the protagonist discovers they’ve been in love with one of their good friends all along
  • Enemies to lovers, in which the protagonist discovers they’ve been in love with one of their enemies all along
  • Fake dating, in which the protagonist is thrown into a situation in which they must pretend to be dating someone, only to fall for them for real

One thing to note that in YA, while romance is often included, explicit sex scenes are not typical of the genre (and instead are either omitted entirely or suggested).

The Chosen One

This is a trope most often seen in YA fantasy: The protagonist finds out, due to some unknown origin story, undiscovered power, or something equally new to them, that they are special in some way. Then, more often than not, they must use this special status to do something heroic—such as saving their country, family, or love interest. 

The most popular Chosen One, of course, is Harry Potter, but you can find this trope nearly everywhere you look in YA fantasy, from The Mortal Instruments series to An Ember in the Ashes series, to Shadow and Bone, and more.

The Outsider

Another fairly popular trope, this one can be seen across fantasy and contemporary, as well as other genres. The story will often start with the protagonist being ostracized by their peers, family, or society. This works well in YA, as adolescence is a time where feelings of alienation are common. This makes the outsider incredibly relatable to teens. The story will then go on to show how the protagonist finds a way to claim or reclaim their rightful place in the world.

Young Adult Book Themes

Again, YA novels tend to have one central theme in common: coming of age, or coming into one’s own. But alongside this, there are a lot of other themes you can play with in a YA novel, such as:

  • Outgrowing one’s upbringing
  • Finding strength inside oneself 
  • Dealing with loss for the first time
  • Falling in love for the first time
  • Realizing the people or institutions one trusted to protect them are, in fact, corrupt
  • Standing up to adversity for the first time

It doesn’t always help to go into writing a book with a theme in mind; sometimes a writer can be so focused on a theme they forget to do the most important part, which is to tell a good story. The best advice we can give is to get down the story you want to write, then in subsequent drafts, go in and see what themes you can bring out more strongly in the words and actions of your characters.

The most important thing to remember with regards to a YA book and the theme you want to get across is not to get preachy with your readers. YA readers don’t read to be taught a lesson. They read for the same reasons the rest of us do: to be entertained. 

How to Structure a YA Book

The first difference between a YA book and an adult book in terms of structure is length. YA books tend to fall on the shorter side—between 60,000 and 80,000 words—while adult books usually average 70,000 to 110,000. There are always exceptions to word count rules, and length can also depend on genre (for example, fantasy tends to be longer than contemporary). But this is a good rule of thumb.

YA books also tend to be structured with a faster pace in mind. The inciting incident happens soon after the start of the story; the first plot twist doesn’t occur long after that. Keeping up a fast pace ensures that young readers won’t want to put the book down.

Another consideration is your ending. It’s not that everything has to be happily-ever-after all the time, but YA books tend toward the hopeful in the end, even if there is difficult subject matter within the book. A nihilistic, pessimistic ending is best reserved for adult literary novels.

Other than these things, the structure of a YA novel doesn’t differ wildly from the structure of any other novel. You have your inciting incident, first plot twist, midpoint or second plot twist, third plot twist, dark night of the soul, climax, and conclusion. There are more in-depth plot beats depending on your genre, be it rom-com, thriller, or fantasy, so we recommend reading up on the specific genre you’re writing in before you outline to ensure your structure keeps your YA novel on point.

Young Adult Characters

As discussed earlier, your YA characters need one main characteristic: they need to be teens.

That’s not to say you can’t have side characters of other ages. In fact, it might be a little odd if you didn’t. But your main character, and usually at least a few of your side characters, will be teens themselves. 

Among this cast of teen characters, apart from your protagonist, you typically have:

  • The love interest, or two, if you want to include romance in your book
  • The best friend or ally, often more than one
  • The antagonist—this could be a bully or another kind of adversary 
  • The authority figure—be they parents or some sort of mentor
  • The younger sibling—someone for the protagonist to be alternately annoyed by and protective of

You don’t need all these characters, of course. Use what serves your story.

What to Know About YA Readers

The people who should always be in mind when you write YA are your readers.

Yes, plenty of adults read and purchase YA books, but the thing YA writers need to keep in mind is that YA is first and foremost for teens. 

That’s not to say you need to “dumb down” your book in any way; it’s just to say, keep them in mind as you write. Teens are incredibly smart and discerning readers, and they’ll spot any falsities in your writing a mile away. As we said before, the best way to know what teens are into these days is to read current YA.

How Will You Write Your YA Novel?

Writing a YA novel can seem overwhelming, but it can also be incredibly rewarding to write a book that’s beloved by young readers. Plan your story, theme, and characters, pay attention to what’s trending in the YA market, and read as much as you can. You’ll be well on your way to your first YA novel in no time. 

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