8 Tips for Writing a Great Young Adult Fiction Manuscript

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Back when I offered manuscript review and editing services, I wrote up 8 tips for writing a great children’s book manuscript. At other points in my life, I myself wanted to dabble in the realm of children’s literature, as E.B. White once did with Charlotte’s Web. However, my own dabbling in fiction has led me to writing young adult fiction in the form of episodic short stories.

However, since I’ve already written an article in the past to share my knowledge and findings on the field, I decided to see how much of it would be applicable to young adult fiction. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of it is very similar. So, while there are certainly some major differences between writing for children and writing for teens and young adults, a lot remains the same in getting younger readers invested in any book. 

The main reason I decided to revive this sort of article, a type I typically don’t author, is that I’ve been discouraged by just how little enticement I see for readers today. I know that reading is still popular, but the current generation is much more into podcasts, audiobooks, and YouTube videos for their entertainment. However, I feel that books are an extremely important medium that isn’t getting nearly as much love as I recall seeing in my own youth and young adulthood. 

Sure, it’s true some kids just don’t like to read. For centuries, parents, librarians, teachers, and others are always looking for books to turn reluctant readers into avid ones. There are hundreds of children’s and young adult fiction books out there that come highly recommended for just that purpose.

But, perhaps you’re thinking of writing a young adult fiction book yourself to hopefully inspire more teens and college age young adults, even your own, more into reading themselves. Per my research for the article this was based upon, I found that children’s book writers have discovered eight key elements that make for books loved by all. 

I’d argue that, with some adjustments, these same points can work for creating top-notch young adult fiction. If you can work even three of these elements in your YA manuscript, you will have a great book that could well be enjoyed by even the most reluctant readers.

Make Readers Smile and Chuckle 

As we all need some humor in our lives, making readers laugh is an important part of building interest in reading. Laughter helps create positive associations with the material and can improve retention. Of course, you need to aim the type of humor at the expected audience of the book; different humor works best for different age groups.

For example, in picture books meant for ages 0-6, humor should very visual and broad. (Of course, this can still be done in graphic novels even meant for adults.) In easy readers and picture books for ages 6 and up, you might introduce verbal humor such as double meanings, puns, and other wordplay. 

But, in the chapter books that are the cornerstone of YA literature, young adults should be served with jokes with a setup and payoff that plays out over several scenes or even the entire story. Personally, I still love wordplay and puns in my writing. Yes, you can use these in YA, as long as you don’t go overboard and make your “mature” readers roll their eyes and throw down the book.

At any age, dialogue and character’s other interactions can be made innately humorous. Characters clearly having fun with their surroundings, situations, and with one another make for much livelier reading. Humor is how you get readers to start identifying with and getting to know the beings depicted on the pages.

Develop Well-Defined Characters

One of the main keys of any great book is having characters that people can identify strongly with right away. This is particularly essential for reluctant readers. No matter what the character looks like on the outside – whether he, she, or they is an alien, a clown, or a talking dog – that character needs to embody the perspective of your target reader from within.

The best way to create these well-defined characters is to look at issues and situations that young adults may face in their own lives. It also involves the characters seeing the world in a less adult way. Just like any good character in any great book, YA book characters must have multidimensional personalities. This means they must have strengths and weaknesses. While these are often clearly defined in kids’ books, in stories meant for older audiences, those strengths and weaknesses should be more subtle. The characters need to feel real enough for readers to care about them and want to follow them throughout the story.

What about YA books that touch on nonfictional topics, such as historical fiction? In particular, great biographies targeted at a young adult audience will often focus on elements of the subject’s life relevant to their target audience. A YA story should make the main characters like someone they could know in their own lives and even be friends with. Such an approach makes even the most bland historical personalities much easier for reluctant readers to like and follow.

With YA books that revolve around certain subjects such as events or fields of study, I’d recommend using a character or characters that explore those subjects along with their readers.  Think of the Magic School Bus and science, but in more of a high school or college setting. If readers are literally learning alongside the characters in the book, they’re a lot more likely to become invested in the subject material.

Feature a Fast-Paced Plot

Young readers who love reading don’t mind reading through a few chapters to watch the story unfold. The same is true with young adults, who may even dabble in mature fiction. On the other hand, reluctant readers will easily lose patience. Many great YA books start with the action by the very first paragraph. In fact, most editors would suggest this should be done by authors of adult fiction! 

In any case, by the end of the first chapter, YA readers should know a lot about the main character or characters. The main conflict or problem that the characters are facing should also be very clear. Their motivations should be at the very least hinted at, even if not outright declared.

Being that YA fiction is typically made up of chapter books, having various subplots is fine. But, take care to only have one or maybe two subplots. Having the story branch off into too many directions will get in the way of moving the story forward. It’s also a good idea for these subplots to tie in with the main plot at least somewhat thematically. 

I’ve run into this subplot problem often myself. We live in a world where streaming series go off on tangents from time to time just to fill out an episode. This actually happens a lot in books, even in books we consider good. Some readers don’t mind meandering, but only if they’re already invested in the material. Especially in YA fiction, though, you want to write a page-turner, one that sticks to the main characters and the central conflict or problem, with minimal diversions.

Write Concise Focused Chapters

In children’s books, each chapter should only contain one clear event. In nonfiction, each chapter should only cover one specific point. Now, in YA fiction, you can have a couple of things happen, as long as they are part of a chain of cause and effects.  Also, both in children’s and YA fiction, each chapter should have a clear story arc of its own: a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

I’ve often found that kids may only want to read a chapter at a time. Even when I was in high school, many of my bookworm peers would take time to read a single chapter at a time, too. By having a chapter that is a complete scene, it will still be satisfying to the reader just reading bit by bit. If the chapter ends on a high or dramatic note, it may entice even reluctant readers to read more to see what happens.

Finding a balance between writing a good wholesome chapter and still leaving enough loose threads to keep the reader turning the page is important. I myself often only read two chapters of any book in one day; this is how my brain best retains and reflects on the material. I know I’m not alone with this sort of reading comprehension strategy.

My solution for keeping chapters concise and focused is to create what are called episodic novels. In such books, each chapter could stand alone as a short story. These are actually sometimes done in adult books, as well. You don’t want them to be oversimplified as with children’s books, but be briskly paced enough to not bore reluctant readers. 

Having a book full of short stories, whether or not they are connected in some way, makes it much easier for target readers who only read a bit at a time to get pleasure out of reading. My approach involves planning out the story more like a television show than a stage play. While more mature fiction can take a much more cinematic approach, as my wild endeavors have often attempted to do, YA fiction should be something you can see your teens or college-age loved ones watching intently on a streaming service.

Be Thematically Relevant to Young Adults

Naturally, it’s important that ideas and themes that form the basis of a kids’ book plot must be meaningful, relevant and applicable to the reader’s own life. This is especially true of YA fiction, too. Young adult fiction stories need to be told from that age group’s frame of reference, not from a more mature adult perspective. 

However, unlike children’s books that often focus on having some sort of moral or practical lesson, YA books can exist just to entertain. Still, be aware of what the young adult crowd is interested in at the time you’re writing, but also weave in universal themes. Just like with any good writing, write to your audience, not at them. When you’re writing, picture yourself as the kind of reader you’re writing for. Is what you’re writing something that will entertain them? 

The gist here is that YA fiction can have lessons to teach, but it should be done through the guise of entertainment. Kids books often drive home points in clear, direct language. YA books can be much more nuanced, dropping wisdom through bits of conversation, especially using humor to make readers laugh but also think about why it was funny to them.

Craft Engaging, But Challenging Narratives

Children’s books are meant to be a way for young readers to develop their reading skills. YA books are meant for readers who have already developed some skill, so they need to be written in a challenging, but not overwhelming way. The advice I often read is to use active sentences with concrete nouns and verbs, helping to tell the story as clear as possible. Generally, I think this is sound instruction.  

When writing for a broad range of readers as the Young Adult crowd — as even mature adults will read YA fiction — you will want to make the vocabulary accessible to the younger end of the age range, but still keep it appealing for readers at the older end of the range. It’s OK to drop in an unusual word or two, as long as there are obvious context clues and potentially even someone outright defining it. I never shy away from helping expand reader’s vocabulary, as long as the word you’re introducing is relevant to the story and not forced.

Of course, the last thing you want to do is underwrite your YA book. I find many books today written at a sixth grade level when what I was accustomed to was closer to eighth grade level. Many YA books I see written today can make older readers feeling bored but still leave younger readers confused. You want to leave most of the storytelling to the dialogue and actions of your characters. Try not to wax philosophical in narration, and you’ll probably do fine even with delivering on a fairly complex plot. Heck, this is a mistake I took decades to learn how to overcome!

Present Topics in a New & Unusual Way

With both fiction and nonfiction, kid’s books should always appeal to a child’s personal interests. In fact, many reluctant readers will choose nonfiction over fiction for that very reason. YA books should be no different. In fact, it’s possible to blend nonfiction with fiction by taking topics raw current YA crowd is interested in, but presenting them in a new and unusual way. 

In fact, presenting ideas in new and unusual ways is a big reason why many books are written in the first place. Many of the best books out there, regardless of target audience, will find a new or unusual slant to even topics that have been done time and again. Whatever approach is taken, using humor and fun while sneaking in some educational value is usually a recipe for an awesome book.

It’s also important to remember that many young adults don’t recognize just how much there really is out there to know and learn about. Books are all about ideas, telling stories to relate our knowledge and experience through the mouths and experiences of fictional or nonfictional characters. 

Simply telling a formulaic story with stock characters is getting to be par for the course in every genre of fiction. YA fiction took far more risks in the 20th century than it is now in the 21st. Don’t be afraid to bend and twist things a bit to make readers just unsure of what’s going on enough to keep reading and discover some perspective that they may never have considered before.

Give Your Book Some Visual Appeal

Books can be intimidating for young adults, not just younger readers. It’s true that the more visual appeal that a book has, the more likely any one will want to read it. While not all authors have a say in a book’s design, especially when traditionally published, self-published authors and author/illustrators might. 

Some elements that add visual appeal to any book include generous use of white space, illustrations elaborating upon the text, and a larger than standard typeface. Anything that breaks up text or makes strings of words less intimidating for young readers works very well even in  chapter books. Reluctant readers who appreciate the added visual elements. Heck, even a word-happy gal like me loves some good illustrations. 

If you can produce a great YA manuscript with all eight of these elements, you may easily have a bestseller on your hands. Even with just working a few of these elements into your work somehow, you’re much more likely to have even reluctant readers enjoy your work. After all, you want your book to inspire more young adults to read for years to come.

~ Amelia Desertsong

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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