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Writing Fiction for Young Adults
Although young adult fiction, as opposed to its mature adult counterpart, may be perceived as a separate genre, the designation instead reflects the age range of its readers-in this case, those between 12 and 18-and hence entails;plots which are appropriate for such development.
“Young adult is perhaps the largest category of new fiction today,” according to Kate Angelella, former editor of Simon and Schuster Publishers. “Or to put it another way, writing young adult fiction seems to be at an all-time high. There’s something about adolescence-coming of age, first loves, first triumphs, loss of innocence-that makes it the perfect backdrop for raw, honest storytelling. No matter how far we get away from them in time, the memories of our teenage years tend to remain fresh.”
YOUNG ADULT-MATURE ADULT FICTION COMPARATIVE:
While both young adult and mature adult fiction entail the traditional elements of plots, scenes, characters, dialogue, interior monologue, and setting, there are several fundamental differences between the two.
The first, as indicated by its very designation, is the readership to whom the literature is pitched, advertised, and catered, although some “crossover” sales have resulted in adults reading young adult books and vice versa.
The second, consequently, results in similar-age protagonists and other supporting characters so that readers can identify with and understand them, and stories involve their concerns, priorities, perspectives, thoughts, observations, and feelings. In short, these stories focus on how they deal with elements of the plot and those with whom they interact.
Voice, the style in which the story is told, is the third. Because similar-age readers will vicariously experience its characters’ journeys, that voice must be teenager-authentic and realistic. Their experiences must also be appropriate and can include themes such as peer pressure, acceptance, self-image, initial love, school work, sports competitions, bullying, and supportive or abandoning home life.
Style, yet another element, entails immediacy-that is, teenagers deal with their circumstances right now, while older adults in more mature fiction may involve past reflection writing.
Finally, presentation also varies. In young adult fiction, topics such as love and violence are explored in less explicit ways.
RULES FOR ENGAGING YOUNG ADULT READERS:
Traditionally mature adult fiction writing aspects must be modified to be suitable for young adults.
In order to hook and engage a teenager, whose attention span is usually far shorter than that of an older adult-especially if his interest has not been piqued-the author must create genuine characters.
“The life of the story depends on the writer’s ability to convince the reader that the protagonist is one of them,” according to Regina Brooks in her book, “Writing Great Books for Young Adults” (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2009, p. 2). “The key to writing a successful (young adult) novel means knowing kids well enough to channel their voices, thoughts, and emotions.”
The author, assuming the persona of his main and, to a degree, minor characters, must convince his readers that he is on their level. Like his protagonist, he must strive to demonstrate that he understands how he views and feels about the world at his age, that he “gets him” and is one like him. There must be a teenager-to-teenager connection.
While books in this category may contain subtle moral themes, they cannot be written in this style. Instead, any lessons must be gleaned through character interaction and plot experiences, forcing the writer to avoid, at all costs, the preach-and-teach methodology. School is for theoretical learning. Life depicted in young adult fiction is for kindred-spirit understanding.
Finally, “life,” as a destination, may not necessarily be the composite envisioned and experienced by a mature adult. As a result, the writer must understand the world from the teenager perspective-that is, what are their concerns, worries, and motivations? How do they speak? This “research phase” of a book may require exposure to teenagers, such as the author’s own, his teenager’s friends, or through considerable young adult literature reading so he can frame their actions, reactions, and expressions.
A 50-year-old, for instance, may be concerned with his taxes. A 16-year-old will be more concerned with her parent’s permission to go to a party on Friday night and what her curfew will be.
YOUNG ADULT THEMES:
Before an author conceives a plot, he must decide what he wishes to convey through his story-that is, what is his message and what does he seek to illustrate through his characters and their actions? Because young adult literature is intended for still-developing teenagers, specific themes are not only applicable to them, but readers are often influenced by them. The writer must therefore create an interesting and exciting tale in order to avoid the didactic or preaching angle such novels could easily assume.
“The theme of a novel… includes a view of life and how people behave,” advises Brooks (ibid, p. 113). “It’s the underlying philosophical idea that the story conveys. In other words, it answers the question: What is the story about?”
“The theme is critical in a young adult novel, especially one that may be used in school classrooms,” she continues (ibid, p. 113). “At the end of the story, the message of the themes is what the reader takes away from the story. What insights into life or human nature are revealed… ?”
Although they should have a universal appeal so that they provide interest to the greatest number of readers, they should be specific to the story’s characters and the experiences the plot affords them.
Common themes can include, but are hardly limited to, acceptance, relationships, challenge and success, cooperation, courage, death and loss, family, fear, forgiveness, friendship, growing up, honesty, individuality, innocence, justice, loneliness, love, perseverance, priorities, regret, sacrifice, selfishness, self-esteem, equality, tolerance.
Although the author should be able to state his intended theme in a single sentence before he writes the first word of his book, it should not be included in the book itself. Some common theme statements include the following.
1) Loneliness results from being different.
2) Regrets follow actions that cannot be undone.
3) You have to accept yourself before you can accept others.
4) Friendship between kids of different cultural backgrounds needs an open mind and extra understanding.
In the latter case, the story may entail a new student from another country (the inciting incident), the protagonist’s journey of befriending him, along with the conflicts that arise from their cultural differences (the rising action), and the realization that people sometimes are different, but that there is not necessarily a right or wrong to what they do and that underneath they all have the same needs for friendship, acceptance, and bonding (the resolution).
This theme, however, would not be directly stated, but illustrated instead through the proverbial “show, don’t tell” writing technique. Concluding dialogue by the protagonist may be as follows.
“When I first met you, I thought there were some different things about you. I never knew anyone from Peru before. But I never realized that you thought that there were some different things about me. I’m just me and don’t know any other way to be. Sometimes, I guess, differences can be pretty cool.”
A story can be considered the sequence of events that begins on a book’s first page and ends on its last. It can be categorized in one of two ways.
1) Plot-driven: This method entails a preconceived storyline and the characters’ actions, responses, and behaviors are molded by them.
2) Character-driven: This method entails a focus on the main character or protagonist and his actions, responses, and behaviors influence the sequence of events. The pivotal point of such stories usually involves the identification of his internal conflict and weaknesses and his decision to triumph over them to achieve his goal.
Similar to a string of falling dominoes, a book’s plot is a chain of events, each of which causes the subsequent one to occur. There are three plot types.
1) Integrated: The story and plot are tightly bound together and the cause-and-effect events drive the characters to the conflict’s resolution, which occurs during the climax.
2) Episodic: An episodic plot entails almost self-contained incidents that may only be connected by a central theme, such as character, conflict, or location. In certain ways, it reads more like an anthology.
3) None: Offering illuminations of life, this type, which is very rare, offers no bonafide plot at all and may read more like a philosophy.
The multiple-element story arc varies little in young adult literature. Nevertheless, there are seven principle aspects to it.
1) Stasis: Stasis, which occurs at the very beginning of the book, shows the characters conducting their routine, everyday lives.
Inciting incident: The inciting incident, like a spark, is the incident, realization, or conflict which sets the story’s events in motion.
2) Rising action: During the course of the book’s many actions, the protagonist begins his journey toward his intended solution, resolution, purpose, or goal, and its intensity steadily increases, coupled with higher, more important stakes. Obstacles, obstructions, internal conflicts, and weaknesses become barriers to the achievement of this goal “The objective is to create a steadily increasing suspenseful atmosphere in order to pull the reader into the story and keep him reading to find out what happens to the characters,” according to Brooks (ibid, p. 39).
3) Crisis: The crisis, which occurs just before the climax, illustrates the story’s maximum tension and suspense. “The final crisis is the result of bringing together all of the known information with some final crucial element that brings the entire story into focus in the mind of the reader,” according to Brooks (bid, p. 39).
4) Climax: The climax is the pivotal moment to which everything in the book has led. It is marked by a fever pitch of actions, suspense, and tension.
5) Falling action: During the book’s falling action side of the story arc, all loose ends are tied up and the author may wish to provide a brief explanation of how the characters’ lives changed as a result of the event sequence.
6) Denouement: The denouement, or ending, can entail several scenarios.
a) The conflict, ignited by the inciting incident, is resolved.
b) The resolution incorporates an element nor previously revealed.
c) The protagonist makes a final, crucial decision, such as to give up something in exchange for the gain of something else.
d) An explanation provides the solution to a mystery plot.
e) The ending reveals a surprise or a twist.
Constructing a young adult plot to provide readers with a satisfying literary journey requires several techniques.
The author should, first and foremost, begin the story’s action as close to the first page as possible so that his readers will identify with the protagonist and accept the journey.
“The characters should have a short period of stability, reach the incitement point, establish the conflict, and take off running toward the climax as soon as possible,” advises Brooks (ibid, p. 43).
He should secondly establish his characters, their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and then allow the plot to naturally unfold, like an unrolling carpet, along with the actions and dialogue that could be considered the extensions of them, instead of creating the plot and plugging the characters into it to run it.
Thirdly, in order to minimize the loss of young reader interest, the number of characters, conflicts, subplots, and dramatic actions should be kept to manageable levels. Characters’ lives should be realistic, entailing real-life events and relationships and not the unending pathos of television soap operas. The focus should be on the protagonist and both the actions and reactions he respectively takes and experiences to advance the story.
Reader anticipation is created when enough information is revealed throughout the book, leaving him to contemplate what could occur during the climax, but never enough so that he figures out the ending, giving him little reason to finish the story.
Chapters should, if at all possible, be structured with mini-story arcs-that is with rising action and small crises or climaxes, which in turn spark the next sequence (and chapter).
Because characters are still young and developing, their growth is integral to the story, and can be inspirational to the reader.
“Psychologically, physiologically, and emotionally, these characters are not adults and do not have adult maturity” according to Brooks (ibid, p. 45). “Dealing with the conflict and the climax will add a layer of experience to their personalities that must be reflected in their behavior at the end of the novel.”
Every story element should have a purpose or a significance to the plot. In other words, nothing should randomly occur and if any aspect does not advance the story, it should be omitted.
Characters reacting to adversity both deepens and provides direction to the plot, and their motivations and goals should fuel them.
The plot itself is, in a way, the sum of its individual characters. Although the focus must be on the protagonist, the motivations of the other players affect and interact with his own. They can either support or hinder, as antagonists, his quest.
Foreshadowed events provide hints to readers of what may later occur.
“The ending of the story should have the elements that were presented to the reader at the beginning,” warns Brooks (ibid, p. 51). “The plot is one long unbroken chain of interconnected events whose initial causes of the protagonist’s quest can be seen along the entire length.”
Finally, protagonist development is tantamount to a young adult fiction story. At the beginning, he may be passive and simply react to what occurs. But, as the plot advances, he must become stronger and find resources within him he may never have known that he had had, enabling him to take charge and propel the plot to its climax.
“This helps to define the protagonist’s character and puts him in a position for more serious conflicts, all leading to the final climax,” stresses Brooks (ibid, p. 52).
“The people who populate your narrative and propel your plot forward are (of course) your characters,” according to Brooks (bid, p. 21). “Without them, there’s really no fiction. A story exists because something happens to someone that forces him or her to change and grow. The protagonist is the main character around whom most of the action is centered.”
Based upon early plot conceptualization, the author must determine the events he will engage in and experience. As a result, his age, personality, strengths, capabilities, and deficiencies must be developed based upon them. In order to endow him with one or two distinguishing characteristics, the author should additionally consider possible habits, interests, passions, nervous tics, ambitions, and motivations.
The latter, particularly, determine his decisions and actions and, to a degree, how and why he interacts with others.
Unlike the protagonist in adult fiction, that in young adult literature may also base his reactions upon his peer group-that is, what he thinks and feels as an extension of it so that he can feel a part of it and fit in with it.
Most important, however, is reader care for and concern about him, since he will invest both time and emotion in him.
“You want your reader to feel sympathy, understand, and care for your protagonist as he becomes more finely nuanced,” advises Brooks (ibid, p. 28). “And the best way to get these attributes across is through your main character’s interactions with other characters.”
“Young adult is not about the result of the novel’s conclusion,” advises Angelella (op. cit.). “It’s about the journey, about finding the center of your character’s emotional truth to present a very real, very reliable human being who is currently in flux and figuring things out,. Young adult readers deserve your emotional honesty. They deserve authentic, emotionally resonant characters that serve to show them they aren’t alone… “
The protagonist’s voice, which can be considered his personality on paper, is expressed through author-chosen vocabulary, sentence length and complexity, syntax, punctuation, and cadence. Because he and the characters he interacts with should be in the teenage-year span, he should have this point-of-view-that is, he should see, perceive, conceptualize, and understand the world from his developmental perspective, not that of an adult looking back and writing with the insight and wisdom he has most likely intermittently gained.
“The important thing… is not to have an adult perspective, not to ‘look back’ and reflect on the emotion of the situation,” according to Nora Raleigh Baskin in her article, “Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Novels” (The Writer magazine). “Your character needs to learn, grown, and change during the course of the novel from the events she is experiencing in the book.”
“Dialogue is the star of a young adult novel,” emphasizes Brooks (op. cit., p. 89). “It stands center stage in the spotlight and brings characters to life. It’s the language of a story spoken by the characters to one another, but overheard by the reader. A character’s dialogue should create an image in a reader’s mind so that he can watch the action of the story unfold.”
It has numerous purposes.
1) It reflects a character’s thoughts, personality, experience, education, upbringing, cultural background, viewpoints, reactions, feelings, and emotions. Words, phrases, slang, and even perspectives may vary according to upbringing city, state, and country. Those from Georgia, for example, will speak differently than those from Oregon, the United Kingdom, Polynesia, Japan, and New Zealand.
2) It creates and develops a story’s conflict. “The characters’ dialogue must start the story out fast,” advises Books (ibid, p. 93). “Keep it to the point and keep the plot moving to the conclusion of the story.”
3) It creates a bond between the reader and the characters. Seeking that kindred-spirit identification with them, the reader must understand, sympathize, and empathize with them, leading him to think, I’ve been in a similar situation myself. I know where you’re coming from.
4) It advances the plot, subdivided into scenes, as characters discuss and assess what has occurred and plan for what may occur.
5) It reflects, reveals, and expresses character maturity and development. The younger the person, the more simplified words and shorter, to-the-point sentences he is likely to use.
6) Finally, it enables the author to demonstrate his characters’ voice and attitudes.
Setting is the time, location, and stage on which the novel’s characters act, dictating how its plot develops. It can be subdivided into three aspects.
1) Physical, which entails both natural and man-made environments.
2) Cultural and social.
3) Emotional, which creates moods and time, as in “the calm lake” or “the violent, ear-shattering thunder claps in the night sky.”
Because setting shapes characters’ behaviors, resulting in inevitable or even impossible actions, the author should carefully create an appropriate one. This can be facilitated by considering the following aspects.
1) What makes this setting unique?
2) Will this setting facilitate the story and enable its characters to act out what they need to in order to advance the plot?
3) Will I be able to suggest, as opposed to just describe, setting details by recreating the image in the reader’s mind with as many of the five senses as possible?
Before that setting is created, the author must ask himself what he wishes the reader to know about it and why these aspects are important to his characters and the story. If, for example, his character is creative, he may elect to describe the art supplies on his bedroom shelf. If he mentions dirty laundry piled on the floor, he implies that the person is sloppy and disorganized-if not a little irresponsible.
Part of setting is time. It can be illustrated in numerous ways: quickly, in a protracted period (stretching the moment), in flashbacks, and in foreshadowed hints of what may occur in the near future.
“Time plus place,” advises Brooks (ibid, p. 71), “equals a slice of life where a story or scene occurs.”
“Great young adult novels are more than entertainment,” according to Brooks (ibid, pp. 127-128). “At the end they should have altered the way the reader looks at the world. Ideally, a young adult novel leaves the reader better able to cope with his own, real-life challenges, because he has vicariously lived similar (ones) with the protagonist of the story and gained his insights. Like the protagonist, the reader has faced and overcome incredible obstacles and is now stronger and wiser because of his almost-real experiences.”
Satisfying endings incorporate some or all of the following elements.
1) An echo of the plot, theme, and conflict-that is, the events should add up to the message the reader will take away from the conclusion.
2) A display of the characters’ feelings so that the reader can empathize with them and understand how the plot’s events emotionally left them.
3) The impact the protagonist’s decision had on the conflict.
4) A sense of the future-that is, how the story will affect the protagonist as he continues his life.
“For the most part, young adult novelists leave their readers with hope, if only a glimmer, despite whatever grim action came before… ,” concludes Baskin (op. cit.). “In writing for young adults, there still seems to be a sense of responsibility-not to drill in lessons and give warnings, but to allow for possibility. Let your readers believe that in the end, the power, the choice, is theirs.”
Brooks, Regina. “Writing Great Books for Young Adults.” Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2009.
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