How to Reward Children in Your Writing, Part 4
Sat Apr 02 2016
This is part 4 in a series on how to write so as to reward children for the work they put into reading.
If you're new to this series, here's Part 1 covering the key way in which kid-readers are different from adult readers plus tips for the very youngest audiences, Part 2 covering picture books, early readers, and "training wheel" books, and Part 3 covering chapter books for middle-grade readers.
Here in part 4, we'll look at books for teens, the young adult category. This is one of my favorite categories in all of literature, because I think that right now is a golden age for young adult fiction. For my money, YA has the best, most innovative, interesting, and provocative writing of any category in contemporary fiction.
I'm not structuring this article quite the same as the others, because the breadth of subject material and styles is so broad in YA that I don't think I could pick a single book to treat as an object of study, the lessons of which could be generalized in any useful way.
Characterizing Young Adult Writing
In broad terms, I don't have much to say about how you write for a YA audience versus an adult audience other than to say make it the best possible writing you're capable of. I will assume you're already doing that, because if you're not, why are you even writing?
The first thing publishing industry people will tell you is that YA is characterized by having protagonists that are themselves roughly age-peers with the reader. That's definitely true, but it's just a continuation of that "looking ahead" element of chapter books like I talked about last time.
What is different in YA versus chapter books is that kids' reading speeds are much higher now. By age 13 reading speeds are approaching their adult values. By 18, if a kid has been a steady reader all that time, you can pretty much expect them to read as fast as an adult.
Faster reading means less work per page, which means your writing doesn't have to maintain quite the same frenetic pacing as before. This gives you more space to work with in telling the same story.
Fill that space up with the following:
- Flowery writing. Now, don't go overboard or anything, but have fun playing with metaphors and allusions. Go ahead and use more eloquent language (though, just as in picture books, make sure the context supports the use of the less common words for readers who haven't learned them yet). Don't take it so far as purple prose, but let your writerly wings stretch a bit.
- Descriptions. Since the reading is itself easier, readers can handle a few sentences or a paragraph of description without getting bored because nothing is happening. Still, don't over-do it. If you devote that much description to every single thing in your story, you'll kill the work-to-reward ratio and turn readers away. Lengthy, detailed descriptions tend to work best in moments when your viewpoint characters are themselves deeply riveted by the thing being described. When that's the case, lingering on a description actually helps pull readers more deeply into the mindset of the character. Of course, helps if the thing being described is genuinely interesting. Choose wisely.
- Introspection. By YA ages, kids are a lot better than they used to be at modeling the inner mental states of other people (what psychologists call theory of mind). When they were younger, they couldn't grasp that stuff very well, and therefore didn't find it compelling in stories. But your YA readers can, and therefore do. This gives you a whole new world of stuff to explore within your book. In YA, it's totally ok to occasionally shift into a quieter mode where the action is internal rather than external. Where what's interesting is watching a character's thoughts and feelings evolve in response to outside events. I even go so far as to encourage YA writers to do this, because it gives readers the opportunity to refine their theory-of-mind skills in a way that is impossible in real life. Only in stories do we have direct access to another person's thoughts.
- Slower build-ups and more intricate plots. More space means you can take more scenes to get from the beginning to the climax. You can develop your plot in much greater detail than before, by introducing side-plots, romantic complications, competing interests, difficult moral choices, and so forth. That kind of stuff just doesn't fit into a middle-grade chapter book nearly as well as it fits in YA.
There's one other difference between YA and adult readers I want to talk about. While YA readers may read just about as fast as adults read, what they won't yet do is absorb ideas quite as readily as someone in their 30s or beyond.
The words may go in just as fast, but the cognitive load those words place on the YA reader is higher, measure-for-measure, than it'll be for the mature adult. We mature adults have had more life experience with workplace drama and intrigue, getting our hearts broken, and the general real-world ramifications of events and actions. When adults see Alice and Mohindar exchange a brief, unexpected look across the classroom, we will much more immediately and intuitively expect some romance to follow.
For the YA reader, this is not so. It's not that they won't expect Y to follow. Just that they'll have to think harder to get there. And in the meantime they've probably moved on to the next sentence, which will be telling them something new, so they may not get around to doing that thinking.
Still that conclusion, the one that seems so immediate and intuitive to you the adult writer, is itself a reward. In the interests of readers not missing it, you may want to leave a little bit less between the lines than you would for grown-ups. For example, you might use tricks like inner monologue to raise the possibility of romance by showing Alice wondering what was that about? Or use dialogue to have Alice's friend say, after class, "Did you see that new, foreign kid looking at you?" If readers see Alice wondering about it, they'll devote a few extra brain-cycles to wondering about it too. If they see her friend comment about it, they'll know "oh, hey, maybe that thing was important," and again they'll spend a little more time thinking about it to find the reward.
I'm not saying to write with a heavy hand and leave no twist or turn unexplained. Don't be blunt. Don't insult your readers intelligence by explaining everything to them. You still have to let them figure things out--let them find the reward for themselves--just help them out a little bit more in doing so. Give them an extra clue but don't just hand them the solution.
The YA category kicks the doors wide open for what kind of stuff your stories can be about. A lot of YA these days is pretty dark. You don't have to go dark, but you certainly can. High stakes, fate-of-the-world plots are common. Dystopias are very common (though in my opinion people are starting to have had their fill now). Stories about kids stuck in very difficult situations are common. Family dramas, divorce, death, heartbreak, murder, drugs, sexual violence, domestic abuse, human trafficking--pretty much nothing is entirely forbidden in YA these days.
And of course, you can write about the good stuff too: love, romance, accomplishment, fulfillment, and everything else that makes life worth living.
Of course, how dark you go still depends on your target audience. I wouldn't throw a really gritty Breaking Bad style story at a 13 year old YA reader. An 18 year old? Sure. But not someone who probably hasn't even hit puberty yet. Be sensitive to that.
The other thing to consider, when adding dark themes to your novel, are gatekeepers. Some parents simply won't let their kids read books that contain various objectionable subjects. Maybe it's gay sex. Maybe it's drugs. Maybe it's rape. Every parent is different.
Just be aware that including those kinds of themes will inevitably limit the audience for your book. I have a client who has a book that includes one rape scene. It isn't graphic. It isn't gratuitous to the story. It isn't there to create a damsel-in-distress or simply to make the reader hate the bad guy. It is there because, as an organic outcome of the situation the characters are in, there's no plausible way it wouldn't happen. The writer handles it as sensibly as possible, and neither the narrative nor anybody in the story makes any excuses for the rapist or any "she had it coming" arguments, et cetera.
Doesn't matter. Lots of parents simply will not let their kid read that book because of that one scene.
I'm not at all saying don't include such things. If it's organic to the story, or if the whole point of the book is to examine such things, then go right ahead. Just be aware of the battles you'll have to fight to get your book into people's hands.
Whatever your plot is doing, I do see some common themes in YA stories that are worth mentioning.
On the younger end of YA, social concerns start to play pretty big. These are the ages when kids are dumped into the deep end of cliques, cool kids, losers, stoners, jocks, geeks, all the shifting alliances that come with kids trying to change cliques or getting kicked out of their social groupings, plus hormones making all of it incredibly fraught.
Little surprise that you see a lot of younger YA books that feature these themes quite heavily. Whatever the plot is about, the characters are usually also struggling to find their own place within the larger society of their peers. Pro-tip: if you can arrange your plot such that the plot solution dovetails with the solution to the protagonists' social concerns (or vice-versa), you'll probably get a very satisfying climax to your book.
On the older end of YA, fitting in and social concerns are still important, but identity questions gain ground. These are the ages when kids are asking who am I? Who do I want to be? Do I like who I am? Should I? Who gets to dictate or judge my identity? Does it matter what other people think of me or what I am? Do my choices influence my identity in the same way that my identity influences my choices?
As always, you create huge reader-empathy for your characters when the characters are struggling with the same kinds of things your readers are. The setting doesn't really matter. It can be something as dystopian as Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series and still explore these issues. I won't give spoilers, but if you're read that series, think back on it and consider how many of those identity questions Katniss faces throughout the story.
Make it Rewarding
This has been a long series. To anyone who has stuck with me for the whole thing, you have my thanks and I hope I have helped you to look at your writing from a new angle.
If the whole series amounts to anything, it is this: make your work rewarding for your readers.
Whatever age group you're writing for, whatever your subject matter is, be sensitive to your reader's ability to take in your words and your ideas. Pitch your writing--or your illustration--to the reader's level.
Never forget that for a reader to put in the effort of reading your book is a gift to you. It is a gift of trust and of work. Respect both by giving them back every bit of reward they've earned.