Introducing: Writing Advice from the YA Aisle

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This week I’d like to introduce a new column in which I share tips for writing in the Young Adult genre based on what does and doesn’t work for teen readers, as informed by my education and experience as a bookseller. The goal is for this to be a monthly column, but depending on the response, it may be published more frequently.

With that said, let’s dive in!

Voice Lessons

Across genres in YA, the thing I see teens gravitate toward the most are books with strong voices. These books know what they are and what they want to say. Whether it’s hard-hitting contemporary titles like The Hate U Give or the latest Sarah J. Maas assassination romp, teens like books that are confident in themselves.

Typically, a strong voice comes from a strong central character. This doesn’t mean your protagonist needs to be brash, arrogant, or an extrovert. Rather, they need to be consistent, and something about their voice needs to ring true.

Teens respond to characters and stories that feel authentic. If you don’t believe in your story and your central character, they can tell.

Tips for Improving Voice:

  • Know your book. Know what your central character wants, what the story (not necessarily the plot) is about, and what you want people to feel when they read it.
  • Try warm-up scenes and exercises to get to know your characters and your story. What would your central character do in a fight? On a first date? How would your cast handle a mundane task like grocery shopping? The more instinctively you can answer questions like this, the more fluidly you will write your characters.
  • Experiment with point of view. Write a scene in first person, then write it again in omniscient third. You might discover that one feels more “right” than another.

It’s All About That Pace

Not all teenagers need or enjoy fast-paced narratives that keep them totally engrossed from page one, but many do. The most popular titles out there know how to catch and keep a reader’s attention.

This does not mean your book needs to open with a fistfight, but you do need to have a hook early on. The first chapter – even the first few pages – should ask a question or present a problem. Readers should be curious and interested in what happens next from the get-go, regardless of genre.

As the narrative progresses, it must maintain tension. This is as vital to a romantic comedy as to a crime thriller! There should be a natural push-and-pull between obstacles and payoff. Just like a song, a story should have some sort of rhythm.

The plot structure of your story is where that rhythm comes from. To that end, it’s good to know what kind of act structure (if any) your story has. Most stories – especially film and YA, which is a very cinematic genre – have a three-act structure. This video by film critic Lindsay Ellis explains what a three-act structure is and how it works, and it discusses how the build-up and release of tension affects the plot structure and vice versa. It isn’t a storytelling guide, but it will help you look at your plot from a new angle.

Tips for Improving Pacing:

  • Some writers suggest color-coding your outline so you can see at a glance where the action rises and falls. If it’s all high-tension, the reader doesn’t have room to breathe or process. If it’s all low-tension, they might get bored. Find balance!
  • Experiment with adding and removing tension. Add a scene where the protagonist spills coffee on their crush. Add one where they have an hour to sit in their room and think about the main conflict. Play with it and see what works.
  • Don’t get caught up in rewriting your first scene (or your last one) when you’re still drafting! Tension is a big-picture problem. If you focus too narrowly on one piece of the story, you’ll lose the forest for the trees.
  • Re-read some of your favorite books and make note of what draws you into the story and what keeps your attention. Sometimes the best way to improve your own writing is to learn from example.

That wraps up the first installment of Writing Advice from the YA Aisle! Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share and comment if you found this helpful!

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