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The Building Blocks of Great YA Fiction

YA bestsellers clipboard [1]


In my last post [2], I talked about writing texts for the youngest readers: picture books. Today, I want to look at the other end of the scale of fiction for young people: writing YA, or Young Adult, fiction.

YA fiction is flourishing right now, with many of the top-selling books in that field–for adults as well as teenagers love to read YA–and publishers are actively looking for great manuscripts. What kinds of books are they looking for? From my observation, these genres seem to be ‘hot’ right now in YA fiction:

Contemporary realism: Confronting hard-hitting issues with emotion but also a light touch

Fantasy: But not vampires or shape-shifters or angels or dystopias unless these are ‘High concept’—ie a dramatic scenario that has not been tackled before or is substantially different in treatment from what’s been done before. Fantasy also should be centered more on strong development of character than too much world-building.

Historical with an adventure/mystery/spy twist.

Thrillers: Mixed genres are popular, such as thrillers crossed with science fiction, or history

Humor: Always a winner: but perhaps the hardest thing of all to write!

Don’t despair if none of those are your bag. Publishers are looking, more than anything, for what they have always looked for: surprising, well-written, gripping stories with great characters and a fresh and interesting voice. Stories that feel like there’s passion behind them: the writer’s passion.

Okay, so that’s the market.  But what exactly, from a writer’s craft point of view, are the actual building blocks of great YA fiction, without which every ‘high concept’ would not work?  Over the years, I’ve had many YA novels published, from historical to contemporary, realism to fantasy and romance to thriller. And over those years, I’ve come to clarify just what it is, to me, that makes a story resonate with readers of YA fiction, so I’d like to share that with you.

Great characters: Key to everything, for from character everything flows. Plot, after all, can be basically defined as the interaction of characters, whether that is good or bad in nature. YA readers like characters who have a strong presence on the page—they don’t have to be ‘kick-ass’ or anything like that, they don’t even have to be all likable (though you need to have at least one or two characters readers can identify with and care about) but they do need to feel real (even if they are fantasy beings) and vivid.  The kind of wishy-washy character you sometimes meet in adult fiction will not go down well. Ambiguity however is another thing: unlike with children’s fiction, anti-heroes can work, if approached carefully. Emotional truth is very important.

Great plot but not overly complicated: ‘High concept’ or not, don’t over-egg the pudding! YA readers love good twisty plots but don’t like being confused (which is not the same as being kept in suspense!) One strong central plot with two sub-plots is a good way to go. A good, intriguing beginning is of course a necessity, but a satisfying ending is even very important: your reader has invested time in your story, and you don’t want them to feel cheated by an unsatisfactory ending. It doesn’t need to be ‘neat’ but it does need to feel believable and not rushed. Don’t pull rabbits out of the hat at the last moment—though surprises, built on clues scattered throughout the story, work well. A romantic element also works well in YA fiction, and can be main focus or one of the side plots.

Dialogue: Should fit your characters and reveal them even in the way they speak. Dialogue does not have to be simple or couched in teen-speak; it just has to feel right. It’s a good idea to say bits aloud, to help get the tone right.

Point of View: A lot of YA novels are in the first person, but many are in third person. It doesn’t matter which one you use; you just need to use it well. And if you have alternating points of view of different characters—as I have done in several of my novels—you just need to differentiate them clearly.

Setting and background: Time and place should be clearly indicated, fairly early on. Some great YA fiction emphasizes these aspects as important parts of the story; for others, it’s just a basic framework. Whatever you decide, it is good to ground your action in time and place, even if both are completely imaginary.

Clarity of language: Whatever style you decide to use, your language needs to be clear, though not necessarily simplistic.

Suspense: It isn’t just for mysteries and thrillers! Creating a feeling of suspense will keep your readers hooked to the end, whatever genre you choose to write in.

Avoid preaching of any kind, whether religious, political, environmental etc. Preaching goes down like a lead balloon with YA readers. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a ‘message’ underlying your story: it just has to be subtly done and emerge naturally from the story, not be pasted on top.

Over to you: what do you think is the ‘secret’ of great YA fiction? And why do you think it’s such a flourishing area of fiction?

About Sophie Masson [3]

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson [4] is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.