10 Tips on Writing Stories for Young People
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 6 “YA/Children”
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. […] They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.”
A long time ago, I watched an episode of the Cosby Show. In the episode, the protagonist's third grade daughter decided not to go back to school, saying she would just teach second grade when she grew up. The idea of it is funny. But sometimes, when I read children's and young adult literature, I often get the impression that this was the author's life plan. They write as if they weren't proficient enough to create novels for adults, so they intend to work on something easier. Maybe they can have some monetary success if they have access to a large enough publication company to spend millions tricking non-reader parents into buying their novels. But we end up seeing these in bargain bins or the trash, and their works do not have a lasting impact. You must be passionate about the style and demographic if you wish to ever write for young people.
Please note that young people, just like all others, are individual and different for one another. The following is generalized advice based on my experiences as a young person, tutor, and ESL teacher. So not every insight of mine will apply to every young reader you wish to write for.
Tip 1: Stories for young adults are stories about young adults.
Though it is important to analyze some differences in style that will make your work more appealing to young readers, the genre as a whole can be condensed to that single statement. If you create a protagonist who is a believable young person, they will speak, think, and act in a way that is dynamic to young readers. The challenge then comes in consistently writing your protagonist accurately, and in empathizing with them on such a level that you feel their struggles, victories, needs, and desires on a personal level. In other words, you must be able to access your inner child and feel how he/she feels. Once you create that realistic young character, your work will inevitably grab the interest of some readers of that age-group, no matter the genre or complexity of your story. So put your effort first into character building, create some test-chapters, and show them to young people of that character's age group to get feedback and make improvements to their believability.
Tip 2: Apart from label, children do not really think of themselves as children.
Remember back when you were a child. If you can, go back to your earliest memories of not understanding things—of not being able to remember if you had a “finger and thumb” or “thinger and fumb”. When I look back, I remember being at times proud of being a kid or else helpless as a kid. But I never imagined for a second that my thoughts were “kid” thoughts. Young people think of themselves as people (for good reason), and they take their own thoughts and emotions seriously. So when you write, do not try to have softer and less intense thoughts or emotions as you might think befits a child. Treat them as you would treat any character, as beings with complex lives, thoughts, emotions, and experiences that have simply not yet brought them to adulthood.
Tip 3: Take advantage of a higher suspension of disbelief, without abusing it.
Young people seem to have more faith in abnormalities in reality than adults do. If you tell them that you are going to tell them a story about a cow and chicken who were adopted and raised as humans, they will resist a lot less than adults, given that the story is of a suitable quality and genre. This provides you with an opportunity to tell wonderfully bizarre tales that are only limited by good taste and your imagination. That being said, suspension of disbelief can only be taken so far before your wacky innovations can begin to come off as lazy storytelling, particularly when you use them to make your story easier. Your young readers can accept a magical villain popping up mid-story in a world you have already established to have lots of magical entities, but they will be less inclined to accept your first featured talking animal showing up mid-story to aid the protagonist. In other words, feel free to go further into the extremes of your imagination, but realize that you should still abide by the same standards of quality in plot, characterization, and world-building as you would in any other novel.
Tip 4: Realize the importance of the trust between you and your reader, and make efforts to maintain it.
Adults, being more cynical and experienced with the creatively twisted machinations of authors, can sometimes appreciate it when their expectations and emotions are cruelly used against them. They have a higher tolerance for finding out that the narrator has lied to them, or that their favorite character dies for no good reason. But even with adults, it is not common for them to really enjoy that kind of storytelling. And rare as those people are, children who enjoy such cruel storytelling are even more rare.
When writing for young people, you must make efforts not to trick or manipulate your readers' emotions or intellect. Most young readers are still deciding whether they even like to read, and have not had the time to learn to differentiate the author from the narrator. As such, you must be far more careful to nurture your young reader's trust in you and in your narrator (who they perceive as being you).
Stories for young people are a partnership between the writer and reader, as equals. And great humility is necessary so that you do not give into desires to elevate yourself above your reader. In a world that often looks down upon and patronizes young people, you have the opportunity to stand apart by giving young people the respect they so need and deserve. So be especially honest in your descriptions of events in the story. If something tragic happens to a character, build up to it and respect the event so that your audience feels that their emotions are being respected. Don't use the story to toy with them, but to build them up in whatever degree you feel important.
Tip 5: Write with the same vocabulary and sentence structures that you would for any other novel.
When I was younger, it always irritated me when older people talked down to me. I understood that they were mostly just trying to be agreeable and friendly when they tried to use my jargon or speak in a way that was simplistic. But it always felt at best cringe-worthy and dull, and at worst patronizing and insulting to my intellect. I always preferred to talk to adults who talked to me as if I were an adult and have found that young people now respond better to me when I speak to them as if they are adults. Similarly, you should avoid making your novel cringey, dull, and patronizing to young readers by just using your normal writing voice. Just vary your sentence types, lengths, and formats in a way that would make you feel compelled to keep reading (more on that in the chapters on editing).
Tip 6: Avoid the romanticization/demonization of adults and adulthood.
The most prominent themes that I usually see in children's works are that either all adults are evil/stupid and all of the children are perfect and somehow magical, or else that all of the adults are wise/good and children are the stupid semi-humans who need to just obey if they want things to turn out for the better. The first situation can become subversively dangerous to how a child thinks (after all, who are my stupid parents to tell me not to get in vans with strangers); while the second is akin to a dangerous sort of brainwashing (all adults are right, I must obey). But both suffer from the ultimate flaw of being offensive to any intelligent reader's sense of realism. Children know that there are smart (if flawed) adults who genuinely care about and respect them, and that there are adults who are foolish, cruel, dangerous, and selfish. Even “Kids Next Door” (a television show where all children fight against the tyrannical forces of adulthood) had the good sense to occasionally acknowledge that some of the children's parents loved them and wanted the best for them. So harness that sense of realism by demonstrating both types of realistically flawed adults, regardless of what type of story you are writing.
Tip 7: Avoid muddling around in adult matters.
I was about nine years old when I figured out the fundamental difference between ya/children's lit and novels written for adults. I picked out a Spiderman novel from the adult section of my library, and was excited to tackle my first grown-up book. So devoted a Spidey-fan I was, that I had determined to get through any complex words, sentences, and material, no matter what. I even prepared by reading some rather difficult (for that age) religious texts written for adults. But then I picked up the book and found that the first chapter was all about the hero's financial troubles, mortgage payments, and job applications. This was far worse than any amount of difficult or mature content, and I never finished the book.
When people read children's/ya books, the key thing they don't want are the trivialities of the adult world. There's a place for mature emotions, situations, vocabulary, and style. But you need to present your story that is not timid, roundabout, or muddled in thick distractions. Be as fearless as your readers, and address themes that are difficult and challenging with answers that are equally so. Just don't bore us.
Tip 8: The young-adult and children's novel market is for grown-ups too.
Despite the desire to avoid adult matters, you need to know that you audience will also include adults. I, for example, am not afraid to say that almost all of my favorite books and series were written for young-adults. But this isn't just a case of nostalgia, remembering books that I liked as a child. No, I read all of these books after I became an adult and received my degree in writing. I enjoy the concise style, the focus on plot and characters, and I enjoy the degrees of imagination. And I'm not alone. Your readers will be people of all ages. And this doesn't mean that you need to add content geared towards adults, just write content of a quality that would impress anyone.
Tip 9: Keep your paragraphs and chapters a bit shorter than you would for more mature literature.
I've talked before about how all readers view reading as a task (even if an enjoyable one). Each paragraph, page, and chapter completed, triggers a reward portion of the brain and makes the reader feel accomplished and refreshed. And the simple fact of the matter is that younger readers have not had the years and years of reading experience necessary to easily tackle larger chapters and paragraphs without it becoming very tiresome. That being said, they can read the same amount of text as an adult if you simply break the story into smaller pieces. Make all of your paragraphs and chapters short enough to be suitable for the age-group of your protagonist. Instead of a thirty-page prologue, for example, try writing a three-part prologue of ten pages per chapter. And get young people in your target demographic to test-read your content, asking particularly for feedback on these issues.
Tip 10: Have fun with every page you write.
I've mentioned before the importance of making every page count when writing a novel. Instead of trying to make boring parts of a story as condensed, necessary, and rare as possible (which is a good first step), find an innovative way to make every boring segment something of interest. Nowhere is that more important than in stories for young people. Every page should feel necessary and alive. And the best way you make your audience feel the power of every page is to feel it for yourself. If you are working on world-building, make sure that you find yourself interested in it. If you are writing a sad scene, bring yourself to that point of sadness by your writing. If you are writing action, make sure you feel exhilarated. Your audience can tell when you as the writer are having fun, and they will be more inclined to have fun for it.
Weekly Recommended Reading: “The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children” by Nancy Lamb, and “The Pied Pipers.” (The first is a simple guide written in a style somewhat similar to my own, and the second is an anthology of interviews with the great children's/YA authors of the 20th century.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.6
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of story for young readers. Determine and write down what age you want your protagonist to be. Then write out a plan for how you plan to illustrate that character's age realistically.
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I'm not sure there should be much distinction between YA and adult fiction. In fact, I'm not sure I understand why stories for kids should always have kid heroes, or why adult yarns should not star youthful protagonists. The stories I write have young kids, teenagers, adults, and even old adults in key roles, and not usually in opposition to one another. The villains are usually adults, but not simply because they are adults. It's because their agendas are negative ones.
Some who have read my stuff call it 'kiddy fare' because it isn't usually gory or overly violent, nor is it overtly sexual. Because it contains monsters and the like, and because many of the stars are kids, readers tend to funnel it into the young adult and middle-grade categories. This doesn't mean that I intended the stories to be YA or MG, it simply means that I only rarely include what has come to be deemed 'adult material' in my fiction.
Point 6 is one I find interesting. Taking television and films into account, I believe the demonization of adults derived as a response to the romanticization of them. During the 1950s, television frequently portrayed parents, teachers, and adults in general as almost deified characters, while the kids were portrayed as little more than barely sympathetic morons. "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" are two prime examples. Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson were cast as occasionally fallible, but almost universally wise Solomon figures who dispensed reliable, home-spun philosophy like a gumball machine dispenses gumballs, usually accompanied by sappy, lyrical incidental music. Meanwhile, Wally and the Beaver, and even more so, Betty, Bud, and Kathy Anderson, were portrayed as dim-witted, selfish, impulsive simpletons who seemed to exist merely as walking object lessons to be corrected by their all-knowing patriarchs. That had to be tiresome for kids to watch, even in the '50s, just as were those dreadful, preachy "Andy Hardy" movies from the previous decade.
In the 1960s, there came a backlash. Since I'm a monster nut, I'll list my favorite example: the "Gamera" films from Japan. Gamera, a giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle, was a poor man's Godzilla from a rival film company. The later films always starred children, and were aimed at young kids. In those movies, the adults were frequently portrayed, at best as ineffectual and confused, and at worst as panicky, nitwitted imbeciles whose stupidity and bad decision making only worsens the situation. The kid heroes, mostly clever, understanding and resourceful, have to then step in and clean up the mess by vanquishing the kaiju foe, or alien threat, with the help, of course, of the fire-spitting terrapin. I loved those movies as a kid, bad special effects and all, mostly because the kids were put in the hero role, even though I knew it was pure fantasy. As an adult, they are hard to watch - for a number of reasons. Dangerous and subversive? Maybe. But fun none-the-less. After all, who can resist a giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle?
Interesting... I'm writing for myself and I'm 28. Never thought about a target audience. Although, all of those tips could translate to any audience you are writing for (some with some rewording perhaps). I find that a story you care about will also be brought to life with the more you put into it. So having fun and being able to emotionally engage with what you're writing is something I value highly.
I know it sounds easy but when you think about it, it is really hard. I mean there are a lot of things to consider such as personal experience and culture. For example, have you ever seen a kid character act a certain way at that age and thought to yourself "I did not act that way" or "what kid acts that way when they're (blank)".
I remember a critic once said that the problem with kid character is that a lot of kid characters act like adults (I believe the answer he used was the Cosby kids from Fat Albert).
To me ALL the best kids shows are the ones that respect their audience even though they are kids, examples include Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Regular show, Steven Universe, Star vs The Forces of Evil, Gargoyles, animatedBatAnimatedSeries, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra, Teen Titans (the original not Go), Transformers Animated, Transformers Prime.
Adventure Time give and take for me. Depends on what level of annoying the side characters are in a given episode.
Some of the classic YA shows - Rocko's Modern Life, Hey Arnold, Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy. . .ok maybe not that one all things considered. . .
As a kid I was constantly upset at children's entertainment media for taking us for complete idiots, and that's a good deal of why I started to make my own stories, because I wanted to do better. I do enjoy writing kids and teens going through struggles, because they do have a different perspective and can react in very unexpected ways as they have their own logic based on what they can see. They can also be a lot more resilient than adults in certain situations, due to their brain being still unfinished and capable of adapting better.
To me, what's most difficult is to figure out how a child of a given age should act, as I have to rely on memories of friends instead of memories of myself, because I wasn't a neurotic kid. Like, I'm extremely surprised to find here that there are kids who don't make the difference between the author and the narrator, because I never ever had such a misconception ("how even would Babar, a fictional elephant character, write a book? also the name on the cover isn't that of the character")
Thanks for reading!
I agree though, kids are smart. I always keep that in mind when writing for, and about, kids. They may operate on a different logic than adults, but it's still logical to them. They solve problems based on what they know, just like we do. But they're so open to learning, and take everything in. I loved to come across new words in books as a kid. It meant I got to look it up and learn what it meant. I still enjoy that, honestly.
Anyways, I recommend these youtube channels for my fellow writers:
Jenna Moreci: www.youtube.com/channel/UCS_fc… great tips, lots of swearing and sarcasm. Wonderful.
ShaelinWrites: www.youtube.com/user/ShaeTheWo… she's young but she's written so many books. Nitty-gritty tips.
Overly Sarcastic Productions: www.youtube.com/user/RedEyesTa… watch their trope talks. Life changing.
I also have a British TV example of this idea, which I'd like to share: Jamie's Dream School, which aired in 2011-2012. The programme involved Jamie Oliver (might know him. he's a celebrity chef who's very involved in british school catering) setting up a school program for 16 year olds who'd flunked their exams. and he'd recruited people who were famously known for their practices to be the teachers; mostly english celebrities or stars, all really passionate for their work, and highly experienced. Examples include Alistair Campbell teaching politics, Simon Callow teaching Drama, Robert Winston teaching science, Rankin teaching photography etc.
In terms of behavior the program was just as expected. Almost all of the kids were the kind at face value you'd assume to be stupid, moody, delinquents who had no ability to listen, but every one of them managed to show potential and amazing work in between their heated disputes and the struggles the teachers went through to establish a working rapport, and it paid of by the end.
I still look back at that program and the truths it shows are some of the most valuable for anyone wishing to understand YAs.
I'd recommend it. It's a tough watch, as there is plenty of drama, but it's highly enlightening.