What Makes a Good YA Novel?

Melissa Pearl with Students at St. Kents
Melissa Pearl with Students at St. Kents

In no way would I consider myself an expert on writing. However, I have been studying and practicing the craft for well over a decade and my fifth book is about to be released in November, so I do feel slightly entitled to share the knowledge I have gleaned so far.

I was asked to write this post on what makes a good young adult novel. I have come up with a few suggestions of what I think are some of the necessary elements needed in a book written specifically for this audience.

First, and foremost, like with any good novel, you need a well-constructed story filled with diverse characters the reader can relate to.

Once you have this foundation, you may then need to think about what makes a story more YA than other books.

Obviously, at least one of your characters needs to be a teenager. That goes without saying, but when you are constructing a teenage character I think it’s really important that we give this age group the respect they deserve. Teenagers are awesome – most of them are intelligent people who feel emotions at heightened levels. I am just generalising here, of course, but they haven’t lived life long enough to be really hardened by it. I know some teens have, and to be honest, teen characters like that are awesome to work with. I guess what I’m trying to say is that teens just seem more open to the possibilities of life. They’re not tough and hard and cynical like adults can be. When the fall in love, they fall hard. When they have a crisis, it’s major. When they fight for something they really want, nothing can stand in their way. I think that’s why I love writing about them so much.

Another thing YA novels must have is a dialogue that teens can relate to. Hang out with teenagers, watch high school movies and TV shows, listen to they way they talk and what they talk about. Also watch the way they react to one another. Most teens are hyper aware of what others think of them. I love sitting in a shopping mall and watching teens walk by. Some of them are like schools of fish all clumped together, all desperately wanting to be cool, yet slightly unsure of themselves. Then you get the loners with the ear plugs permanently in their ears, trying hard to wear this isolation with pride, but also unable to stop watching the louder more confident teens – either hating them or wishing they were like them. I love it. Studying teenagers is one of my favourite things to do. If you want to write about teens, you should do this, too. Make sure your teen characters are authentic, feeling things that teens would feel and facing problems that are important to a teen.

Writing wise, I think teen novels need to be fast paced, filled with lots of dialogue and action and definitely not bogged down with a ton of descriptive language. Each generation seems to have a shorter attention span. Teens are not going to want to wade through paragraph after paragraph of visual description unless action and dialogue are peppered throughout it. The Hunger Games series is a great example of this. It’s filled with short, sharp sentences that build the intensity and keep the action going. I tend to stick to the principle that if I can see the scene as a movie in my head, then it will probably work out okay on paper.

I also think it’s good to deal with a solid issue in a novel. Give teenagers something to dwell on or think about after they’ve finished reading. Think about the issues that are important to teens and what might inspire them – like a character overcoming the odds and succeeding, whether it be fighting a major battle or standing up for themselves or learning something new about who they are and accepting it. As I said before, teens are intelligent beings who want to be motivated and inspired. Whether we want them to or not, they watch adults, they study us like we study them and it helps define who they want to be. That’s a big responsibility as a writer, but it’s also a very important one to consider. The images and values you portray in your words will impact your reader, so be careful about the kinds of messages you want your teenage audience to walk away with.

As I said earlier, these are simply my thoughts and opinions, some of you may agree, others of you may scoff. I always welcome healthy discourse on the subject of writing, so please feel free to share your opinions in the comments section.

In the meantime, whatever you are writing or reading, I hope you are inspired by it.


Author: Melissa Pearl

Melissa Pearl is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of multiple novels spanning a variety of genres, from YA fantasy and paranormal to romantic suspense, including award-winning novel, BETWIXT. For more on Melissa, visit her blog or her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “What Makes a Good YA Novel?”

  1. Though I have no story ideas in mind for writing YA, I’ve thought about it a time or two. We all were teenagers once ourselves, so thinking back on our experiences might help anyone writing YA. Since teenagers are all around us, everywhere, we have lots of places to watch, listen and learn. I love watching them as they are fun to watch trying to figure out where they fit in society now and where they will fit as they grow older. Great Post, Melissa.

  2. Melissa, you may not consider yourself an expert, but my inner teenager could not put down your Time Spirit trilogy, so any aspiring YA author would do well to follow your advice!

    1. I find covers SO impossibly hard. The hours I spend scanning book store shelves. It’s such a subjective thing. I think eyes and pretty girls are quite popular πŸ™‚

      I’m really happy with my Betwixt cover because it’s quite different. It seems to be getting a great response at this stage.

      What have you found?

  3. Melissa, great stuff. You definitely know what you’re doing in this genre. You are right on the money as far as the message is concerned. You want the story to have a message but not be too “preachy.”

    In addition, it’s important to keep the dialogue fresh and young, but try to stay away from cliche and time-stamped, after all, “Valley Girl” speak didn’t last too long.

    I’ll always consider you an expert in this field, keep up the great work.

  4. Good post, Melissa. What I find interesting is how many adults have been reading YA books. The Harry Potter books started it, I think, but it’s kept going, particularly in the fantasy genre. For awhile I thought it was because “adult” authors had gone over the top in terms of risque content and lack of plot — but then “50 Shades” started selling like hotcakes. So much for my theory. πŸ˜€

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