Monday, June 11, 2012

5 Critical Things to Make a YA Story Stand Out

I was recently invited to speak to a children’s writing class taught by the fabulous Bev Katz Rosenbaum. Bev suggested that if I had any tips on writing YA novels the class would appreciate hearing them. I have no idea if what my two cents is worth but when I wrote down what I thought five critical things to make a YA story stand out (to me anyway) were I thought it might make a good blog post. And since I haven’t blogged in a dog’s age here they are. Like I said to the class: Take what you want, throw away the rest, simmer on the back burner but ultimately cook your own recipe. :)

1. Write Believeable, Age-appropriate Dialogue

If a teen sounds like someone who is fifty-years-old you better have a solid reason why that teen sounds like that. Very formal language, using words that the teen wouldn’t know unless they went to a graduate class in English Lit., pull a reader, especially a teen, out of the story because it doesn’t sound real.

By the same token, try not to make dialogue sound too ‘teen’ – or what you think ‘teen speak’ sounds like. Trying to do teen lingo can work but use it sparingly. It can also date a novel pretty quickly. If you don’t regularly hang out with teens, you will more than likely get it wrong anyway. I wouldn’t recommend peppering every other conversation in your story with “like” or “totally” or “whatever”.

Also remember that when you are writing commercial YA or commercial YA with a literary bent (I would put John Green novels in this last category) you can have very different writing styles that will influence your dialogue. The key is making sure your character (what makes up the personality of that character) is saying what he or she would say at that particular age in his/her life. Dialogue is as much about the words being used as it is in the cadence and tone of the sentence structure. Make sure each character sounds distinct and not a carbon copy of their best friend or, God forbid, their mother.

2. Make the Pace and Conflict Fast and Plentiful

Good YA stories throw you into a situation quickly with not a lot of lead up and keep that pace going at a pretty good clip. Pace was one of the hardest things I had to learn. What ultimately helped me were two things:

Jack Bickham’s book Scene and Structure


Donald Maass’s workshop on How to Write a Breakout Novel

One gave me the structure I needed to know how to get into and out of scenes quickly, and how to develop scenes that were action oriented and then followed by a breather/time to contemplate what had just happened kind of scene.

The Maass workshop gave me the best advice for creating a page-turning story – Make It Worse.

You think things are bad for your heroine if her parents ground her? Make things worse by having her sneak out of the house and get caught by police for something she REALLY shouldn’t be doing. Illegally Blonde had my heroine getting deported, then buying a fake passport, working for people she likes to help pay for that illegal document, then having to help someone commit a criminal act against those people she likes if she wants to get that passport. How far is your character willing to go to get what they want? Escalating conflict isn’t just about external obstacles. It’s also about the internal conflict those obstacles create in your heroine. Lucy likes the owner of the house abd doesn’t want to hurt them but she wants to go home very badly and wants that passport – so a conflict of conscience is created.

3. Make Your Main Character Likeable

Make your character likeable – I can’t stress this enough.

She doesn’t have to be perfect but I learned the hard way that if you have a snarky, surly heroine and you put her into a situation that you think would engender sympathy does not necessarily make HER sympathetic. The author needs to show the reader elements of the main characters personality pretty early on that would engender sympathy – is she vulnerable or funny or sweet in some way? Can you show them having affection for another person or an animal? Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games would not be a very likeable personality if she didn’t love her sister Prim so very much and that was shown so clearly at the beginning of the story.

4. Make the Hero/Heroine’s Goal Worthwhile

Whatever your main character wants must be important enough to the character for a reader to believe everything he/she does from that point on and to care enough about the character and goal to stick with him for 200 plus pages.

Teens feel so passionately about things that your heroine must be passionate about what she needs to do or obtain as well. Make it clear what the heroine wants or needs to do and why she needs to do it.

Remember, too, the goal can be denied or not achieved or even change mid-way through the story – if it leads to the heroine’s personal growth.

In THE BREAK, Abby is determined to keep her Nonna out of a senior’s residence and home with her where she thinks Nonna belongs. She wants to show her mother that she is wrong about putting Nonna in a “seniors bone garden” as she calls it and that she is responsible enough to take care of her grandmother. That goal of hers is continually thwarted. Abby ultimately achieves her goal but it comes at a great sacrifice and not in the way she envisaged. The other goal Abby had never articulated to herself or the reader is her deepest wish - reconciliation with her mother – that goal was ultimately achieved because her first goal failed so miserably.

5. Be Honest to the Character, the Story and the Reader

If you are writing YA to give teens moral lessons just stop now. Teens can ferret out when adults are trying to impart ‘life lessons’ on them very easily. I’ve got 3 teens of my own and they hate being given obvious and constant advice.

If you are writing YA because writing about teens is an opportunity for you as a writer to explore a fabulously energetic, dramatic, conflicted, angst-filled, hope-filled time in a person’s life then you will write honestly and passionately and that is the most important piece of advice I can hope to impart to you.

Write Well. Write Often. Write Honestly. Write Passionately.

What are the critical things in a YA novel that makes it stand out for you?


  1. Great advice, Nelsa. Just finished reading The Break and loved it. You definitely know what you are talking about. Another thing you could have told the students would be to read your book for an example of how to write good YA.

    1. Ah, Jocelyn! Thanks so much. So glad you enjoyed The Break!

  2. All of the above are good points. I especially like when a writer pays attention to #4. I've read too many nicely written funny/poignant stories where the goal/stakes were somewhat wimpy.

    1. Hi Mirka! Yes, I know what you mean. And it seems that the goals seem to be escalating more and more. Depending on the book you write, the goal should be appropriate to that genre (thriller goal vs. quiet literary book goal are two very different beasts!)

  3. Good solid advice! Thanks!

    "explore a fabulously energetic, dramatic, conflicted, angst-filled, hope-filled time in a person’s life" -- and people wonder why we like to write YA, lol. :)

    1. Thanks, Shari! I know - what other age gives us so much material, right?

  4. Great advice! Thanks for posting this!

  5. Yes, yes, and yes! I'm bookmarking this to share with my students next semester. A great reminder. :-)

    1. Thanks, Anna! Hope your students like the tips!

  6. Nelsa, this is great solid advice for novice writers. Thank you. P.S. I'll have to check out Bickham's book.

    1. Hi Christine! Thanks for dropping by! I hope the book helps - every writing craft book can offer a little nugget of something, hopefully!