What is Young Adult Fiction? The Good, the Awesome, and the Even Better
Young adult fiction is one of the fastest growing categories of books in publishing. If you’ve ever been interested in writing young adult (YA) fiction, you might wonder how it differs from regular adult fiction.
There are a few key differences between the two age categories, but there are also some similarities. Sometimes it can almost be tricky to tell which category it falls in, especially with protagonists in the 18-19 age range. (Those might be new adult fiction actually, which we’ll get to.)
So in this article, we’ll talk a bit about:
- What is young adult fiction?
- Young adult audiences
- Young adult tone
- How does young adult differ from adult, new adult, and middle grade fiction?
- Tips for writing young adult fiction
What Defines Young Adult Fiction?
YA fiction encompasses numerous genres including contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, mystery, historical, romance, and more. Young adult genres aren’t separated into their respective subgenres in publishing, like they are with adult books. YA is in itself a category and imprints that publish YA books will publish from many subgenres.
YA fiction features a protagonist in about the 13-18 (sometimes 19) year-old age range. Though most YA tends to focus on main characters between the ages of 15-17.
In the broadest terms, YA fiction incorporates themes that are relevant to teenagers and tends to focus on their personal growth as they find their places in the world. They’re centered on family and friendship and firsts. First loves and first kisses and the first time they’re confronting difficult decisions about their morals, ethics, bodies, and minds. They’re young, and they definitely don’t have all the answers yet. (Though really, do we ever?)
It’s important to note that just because you have a teenager as a protagonist, doesn’t automatically mean it’s a YA book. This is where things can get confusing. There are plenty of books that feature teenage or even child protagonists that are actually adult fiction. Some of these include To Kill a Mockingbird, Room, The Kite Runner, and Life of Pi.
These aren’t considered children’s books because the themes and tone of the novel still fall into the adult category. Hopefully, as we continue through this article, you’ll see what I mean.
Young Adult Audience
You’re probably not surprised to hear that young adult books are targeted at…young adults. Generally speaking, kids prefer to read “up.” This means they like to read books where the main characters are two to three years older than them. That means if you’ve got a 16-year-old main character, your audience spans from about 13 years old and up.
Of course, there are also many, many adults (including me) who love YA, too. Don’t let anyone tell you that adults can’t read YA or that you’re wrong for doing so. Young adult books have just as much relevance and importance and just as much to say about the human condition as adult books do. Anyone who says otherwise is just a book snob (and yes, you can tell them I said that.)
YA fiction has also led the charge on diversifying its books. It’s in YA where you’ll find more BIPOC, queer, trans, and disabled protagonists and side characters than in any other age group.
This is likely a direct result of the audience it’s targeting. Young people understand the world isn’t just made up of one kind of person (one who has been vastly overrepresented in publishing for decades and decades) and are eager to not only share their own stories (there’s also been a bigger rise in authors who represent marginalized backgrounds), but want to read authentic portrayals of their lived experiences and the challenges and joys that come from that.
Young Adult Tone
The tone is where you might notice a difference between YA and adult novels. Generally speaking, young adult novels tend to be a bit shorter (I’m speaking in broad strokes here—there are some very long YA books out there), because YA prose can often be more action oriented than adult books.
The tone of YA tends to be more immediate and there’s an indefinable quality to it that just seems to sparkle.
This is my own term I used to define it and why I’m personally so drawn to reading and writing YA.I can’t put my finger on it or define it, but it’s just a feeling. Very helpful, I know, but if you read a lot of YA, I think you’ll see what I mean. It’s a vibe.
This is why YA tends to use a lot of first-person narration and third-person limited POV. You’re in their head, feeling the big things that teenagers feel, and you’re growing along with them.
Young Adult vs. Other Age Groups
We’ve talked a bit about how YA is different from adult fiction already. Let’s look a bit deeper into how it differs before we compare YA to middle grade and new adult fiction.
Adult vs. Young Adult
As we said, the themes used in YA stories are different than those in adult fiction. YA books focus on problems and issues that tend to affect teenagers, so you get more stories about dealing with friends and parents and teachers. It’s why you find more love triangles and more chosen ones in YA than you do in adult—because teenagers are finding their places in the world.
An important thing to note is that YA fiction doesn’t shy away from adult topics like sex, racism, queer- and transphobia, prejudice, drugs, death, or mental illness. Teens face serious issues every day, and some of the best YA books are about them navigating their way through these challenges. The difference in YA is that the descriptions are likely a bit less vivid (sex scenes, for example, will either be very mild or fade to black versus adult books where they can get far more graphic), but the topics themselves can be explored in all their nitty gritty emotion.
As we mentioned above, YA books are often a bit shorter—in the 60,000-80,000 word range for contemporary books and up to 100,000 for fantasy and sci-fi. Generally speaking, world building is a bit simpler, plots are driven by action and emotion, and dialogue is snappy and, most importantly, echoes how teens sound.
New Adult vs.Young Adult
There’s a weird little category that sits in the wild unknown called new adult or NA fiction. Weird because, while it seemed to be gaining traction a few years ago, traditional publishing did a thing where they put up their hand and said, “Nope. We’re not doing that.” Rumor says it’s literally because bookstores complained about creating new shelf space. They were already set up for adult and young adult and didn’t have room for this newcomer.
The problem is that there’s a pretty big difference between a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old, yet they’re categorized as the same age group. A13-year-old’s problems are usually pretty different from an 18-year-old’s, and none of it really goes well together.
Enter NA: an age group that was supposed to encompass that transition period from teen to adult—including those awkward early twenties. New adult fiction combines the best of YA and adult (in my humble opinion) because it has that sparkle of YA but allows for themes and situations more on the adult side. It really is the perfect blend. But what do I know?
NA is a thriving genre in self-publishing and indie publishers (thank goodness for self-publishing), while the bigger traditional publishers continue to pretend it doesn’t exist. Why? I’m not sure. All it does is confuse people and often you’ll end up in a bookstore where the staff have no idea and a book that’s definitely NA ends up on the YA bookshelf.
Middle Grade vs.Young Adult
Thankfully, there’s far less controversy when it comes to middle grade books. Middle grade fiction targets a younger audience, aiming for readers in the 8-13 age range. Just like the difference between adult and young adult, middle grade books focus on themes that are important to kids in their pre-teen years.
Middle grade books are often written in the third person because they tend to focus on outside factors—like a mean teacher or a school bully—rather than the personal growth you get in the YA category. They’re also shorter, ranging in the 30,000-60,000 word range. And this category is where you’ll also find the most graphic novels, as many readers in this age group are still developing their reading skills as they make that transition from picture books to novels.
Tips for Writing Young Adult Fiction
After all that, I hope you’re still interested in writing young adult fiction. It’s a very rewarding genre to write, but it’s not easier than adult just because it’s simpler. (Many would argue the exact opposite.) Teenage audiences are critical, and if you don’t keep them constantly engaged in your story, you’re going to lose them.
With that in mind, here are a few basic tips for writing YA. If you’d like a more in-depth overview of how to write YA, then visit this article.
Tips for writing YA:
- Don’t forget your audience: While lots of adults read YA, don’t forget that your primary audience is teens, so speak to them.
- Learn how teens think: Read recently published YA books (really can’t stress this one enough), talk to teens, ask teens to be beta readers.
- Learn how teens speak: They sound different than adults, but be mindful of overly modern slang that can make your story feel dated quickly.
- Develop real characters: Think about their motivations and desires and what moves them to act. Give your characters arcs that see them grow into the adult they’re becoming.
- Develop your voice: Again, read lots of YA books to help with this. Remember that the voice in YA tends to be more immediate and lively. Don’t forget the sparkle!
- Don’t shy away from tough stuff: Remember that teens deal with dark subject matter and pretending otherwise will make your story feel inauthentic and hollow.
- Find the light, too: Generally, YA ends on a happy note. While it doesn’t need to be specifically a happy ending, young adult fiction should have a message of hopefulness at the end. Unless it’s horror. Then it can end on a twist.
- Don’t preach: Don’t get moral or sound like their parents. That’s going to get you tossed in the DNF pile.
- Study YA tropes: This genre loves tropes—find out which ones are the most popular and lean into them.
- Focus on personal growth: This is key for character arcs in YA fiction. Teenagers grow up as they learn about the world around them—show your character doing that, too.
If this article has inspired you to try your hand at writing YA, I’ve got good news. The team at Dabble writes several new posts every week, just like this, to help you become the best writer you can. You can access them all at DabbleU, and sign up for our newsletter to get the newest ones delivered straight to your inbox every week.
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Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
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