How to Write a Young Adult Novel that Resonates with Teens
Young adult novels are the fastest-growing category of books today. The success of major franchises like The Hunger Games or Percy Jackson and the Olympians is just the tip of the iceberg— young adults devour books in every genre!
But what does it take to write a young adult novel that teens will want to read? Maybe you have an idea that you think might be the seedling of a great young adult novel, but you aren’t quite sure where to start. If that’s the case, keep reading to learn more about the elements of young adult fiction, also known as YA fiction, and get our valuable tips on writing novels for teenagers!
What makes a novel young adult (YA)?
YA fiction is for teens
While many adult readers may enjoy YA, generally speaking, young adult fiction is written for an audience of twelve to eighteen-year-olds, with more mature content geared towards the older readers in this age bracket.
Young adult fiction deals with subject matter and themes that are more mature than those found in middle-grade fiction. While middle-grade fiction might hint at romance or a first crush, YA fiction might include more mature physical or emotional relationships. YA content might include more graphic violence, profanity, or sex that isn’t found in middle-grade fiction.
While middle school protagonists tend to be focused on friends, family, and their immediate world, YA protagonists are often trying to figure out their place in the greater world outside of their immediate circle of family and friends. In length, young adult books might vary anywhere from 50,000 - 75,000 words.
YA novels differ from adult novels in that a teenage character is the protagonist. Whatever is happening in the young adult novel, it is happening to the teenager experiencing life as a teenager. YA fiction is not written with the hindsight of an adult looking back on their teenage years with hard-earned wisdom. In young adult fiction, there is no hindsight because the protagonist hasn’t yet lived through adulthood to gain this perspective. The YA novel must be written from inside the mind of a teenager.
YA novels have common themes
YA is not, itself, a genre of fiction. YA novels exist in all genres, including romance, fantasy, historical fiction, and more. However, most YA novels will have common themes regardless of the genre. These include:
- Coming of age
- First love
- Life and death
When writing YA, make sure your theme is relevant to the young adult audience and what they experience. For example, John Green’s bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars is a contemporary story about two teenagers living with cancer. Leigh Bardugo’s young adult fantasy Six of Crows is about a group of young outcasts planning a heist, and Lois Lowry’s classic novel The Giver is dystopian fiction. While their premises and plotlines could not be more different, all three stories feature themes of self-discovery, love, and grief.
YA novels are diverse in subject matter
When it comes to the subject matter found in YA fiction, nothing is off-limits. With the overwhelming presence of social media and immediate access to all manner of content, teens face more challenges in their young adult years than ever before. Don’t be afraid to write about sensitive subject matter in young adult fiction.
In Angie Thomas’s bestselling The Hate U Give, the narrator Starr Carter witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer, and the story is soon making national headlines with Starr at the center of the story. In Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming, protagonist Claudia is the only one who seems to care that her friend, Monday, has gone missing as Jackson tackles difficult issues such as poverty, violence, domestic abuse, and racism. And in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker dies by suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes outlining the thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life.
While these are all difficult subjects, in reading these stories, young adults are able to relate to others who are going through things they may be going through. They’re also able to consider circumstances to which they’ve never been exposed but that their peers might be.
Having said that, not all young adult novels deal with dark subject matter. On a lighter note, in the popular “meet cute” subgenre, young adult authors are taking on relationships that involve same-sex or transgender couples, such as in Emery Lee’s Meet Cute Diary, in which a transgender teen’s first love challenges what he thought he believed about relationships. In the last several years, contemporary YA has become a better representation of the real lives of young adults with different gender identities and sexual orientations, something that was much less prevalent a decade ago. More and more, young adults are able to find fiction on the shelves to which they can relate.
Tips for Writing Young Adult Fiction
Now that you know the elements of young-adult fiction, here are some tips for how to write a YA novel!
Read bestselling YA books written in the last five years
Literary agent Jennifer Laughran suggests that writers must read widely in the genre in which they want to write. Reading young adult novels published in the last five years helps writers better understand what is selling and what readers are responding to. You can’t rely on the books that were your favorites a decade ago or when you were a YA reader yourself.
If you want to take it even further, create a spreadsheet where you can track the titles of the books you’ve read. Record the author, the publisher, and the date of publication. Go so far as to even record the agents and editors. You can often find this valuable information in the author’s acknowledgments section, usually at the end of the book, which can be helpful when you’re ready to submit to agents and editors yourself.
Don’t try to be trendy
Don’t try to keep up with quickly moving trends. Publishing is a long game, and often a slow one at that. A topic, musician, new slang, or event that is trending now will be old news by the time your novel is published in one to three years. The last thing you need is for your book to feel dated as soon as it hits the shelves.
Conversely, while it's timeless to impart wisdom, be cautious about being preachy. Most YA novels avoid any attempts at teaching lessons, but if that's one of your goals, make sure to avoid any overt lectures. Such directness risks alienating young readers and having your book end up in their DNF pile. Your primary goal should be to craft a compelling narrative, just as with any adult novel.
Know what young adults are talking about
As with any audience, if you want to write a book for young adults, you need to understand young adults. Teenagers— especially ones who love to read— are smart, and they can tell when an author is out of touch with their world.
If you have teenagers in your own family, pay attention to what matters to them and their friends. What do they talk about? What music are they listening to? What clothes are they wearing? What are they reading? If you don’t have kids who are close relatives, try talking to your friends and family about teens in their lives. You could also volunteer at a school, library, or another appropriate venue.
If you’re not able to get direct face time with young adults, an easy way to research them is through social media platforms, such as TikTok. Just a few hours spent on TikTok will leave you with pages of notes on the teenage mind. To make better use of your time, find TikTokers who represent your ideal reader. If your teenage protagonist is a seventeen-year-old girl who wants to be a filmmaker and get out of her small town, find young adults similar to that character and take note.
By using the power of social media, you’ll be better equipped to write a young adult novel that speaks to your ideal reader.
Ready to start your YA novel?
You’re ready to write that YA novel! Be sure to keep your audience in mind while tackling common themes and subject matter. Listen to what young adults are talking about, and be sure to read widely in the young adult genre. With these tips in mind, your own young adult novel may soon be the next YA classic!