Writing Middle Grade Fiction: How to Get Inside Young Minds

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

Knowing your audience is crucial for writing middle grade fiction.

Really, this is crucial for writing anything, especially if you want your books to sell.

But it’s especially important for middle grade authors who are years—if not decades—removed from adolescence. This distance can result in a wide range of writing disasters, from using over-simplistic diction to creating conflicts middle grade readers don’t care about.

Now, I don’t say this to discourage you. While the potential errors of writing middle grade fiction can be cringy, the rewards of doing it well are massive. You could be the reason a child becomes a lifelong reader.

Your book could be the one keeping kids up past their bedtime—the one they’re reading at the breakfast table, at the pool, or at their sibling’s interminable baseball game. You could be the reason a child barfs in the car on a family road trip… in a good way.

The secret to wielding this kind of power is to understand and empathize with your audience.

I’m about to give you all the tools you need to accomplish this. I’ll also drop additional tips for keeping young readers engaged, as well as some story-building resources you should check out.

Let’s start infiltrating young minds.

Read Middle Grade Fiction

You know the rule. If you want to write something well, you have to read a ton of it. Start immediately. Read MG fiction throughout the entire writing process, from planning your novel to completing the final revisions. 

But how do you know which books to read?

First, narrow it down to your genre. Are you writing realistic middle grade fiction? Fantasy? Mystery

Then, prioritize bestselling middle grade books in your genre. These give you the best insight into popular tropes, as well as the themes and characters that resonate with today’s young folk. They’ll also help you get a feel for age-appropriate vocabulary and writing styles.

I recommend tossing in a few middle grade classics as well as books you’re excited to read. The first will help you recognize the themes that stand the test of time and the second will help you maintain your stoke.

Once you’ve got your reading list set up, you’re ready to start investigating the mind of a middle grade reader. 

Get in Touch With Your Younger Self

A person sits at a desk with their arms folded over a middle grade book as they star off into the distance.

When writing middle grade fiction, one of the best ways to get inside your reader’s head is not to ask what kids are like, but to ask what you were like at that age.

To clarify “that age”: MG readers are between eight and twelve. 

Now, MG protagonists are typically between ages ten and thirteen. Kids like to read about big kids with their big kid problems and big kid freedoms. So keep that in mind as you build your plot.

But when it comes to the way you explore and present that plot, let your reader’s feelings and perspectives lead the way. A good way to do that is to look back on your own childhood feelings and perspectives.

This may not be the most comfortable exercise. Most of us are happy to leave our bad haircuts, gym class humiliations, and sleepover drama firmly in the past. 

But dipping your toe back into the well of youth will help you connect with this audience authentically. So be bold, curious, and a little reckless. 

Questions to Put You in Touch With Middle Grade You

Think back to adolescence. Ask yourself:

  • Who was my best friend? Why were they my best friend? What did we do together?
  • Did I feel like I fit in at school? What did I do to try to impress or connect with other kids?
  • Did I ever willingly go against the flow? What would have mattered so much to me that I’d be willing to look like a loser to my classmates?
  • Did I see myself as having a nemesis? Why did I consider this person my enemy? 
  • Who did I admire most in the world?
  • What assumptions did I make about grown-up life? 
  • What were my family relationships like? Was I especially close to one relative? Did I have any complicated relationships or rivalries with other family members?
  • Were there any contradictions between the values I learned at home and the values of people I went to school with?
  • Did I experience any sudden awakenings to tough issues? (This could be personal, like a divorce in the family, or a news item, like a school shooting.) How did I feel? Did I have a theory about the cause or solution to the problem? What do I understand about this topic now that I couldn’t understand then?
  • What kind of life did I dream of? How did I think I’d get there?
  • What was my greatest source of joy? Comfort? Entertainment?
  • How did I define myself? 
  • What did I fear most?

Make a note of memories that don’t answer these questions but spring to mind, anyway. There’s a reason those memories resurface. What do they show you about your experience of adolescence? 

The point of this exercise is not to write autobiographical middle grade fiction (though you certainly can). It’s about reconnecting with your own middle grade mindset. 

Listen to Your Audience. Like, With Your Ears.

Now that you’ve done a deep, exhausting dive on your own youth, start looking for ways to learn what’s going on with today’s kids. 

If you know any young folk who fall within your audience age range, spend some time with them. Ask them about their lives or what they think about current events or what they wish they were old enough to do. Ask them anything!

Oh, and definitely ask about their favorite books and movies. What stories thrill them or make them feel understood?

In these conversations, also note how kids in this age group speak. What phrases do they use to communicate irritation, excitement, or curiosity? What topics get their words flowing and what makes them stumble?

Keep this information in mind so you can ensure your writing style is developmentally appropriate and your dialogue is authentic. Little tip: YouTube is a great place to find unscripted kidspeak. 

Get to Know Their World

Two middle grade kids in a classroom reaching towards one another with markers.

Writing middle grade fiction in the modern day requires you to understand how things are different for these kids.

Is school the same as you remember it? What projects or milestones are a big deal to kids? Would children in your audience look forward to festivals, field trips, or other major school events?

How old is the average kid when they start taking on certain chores or navigating the neighborhood alone? 

What about technology? Would your characters have their own phones? How would they engage online? And how might technology create conflicts that wouldn’t have existed when you were a kid?

On that note:

Get to Know Their Problems (And Take Them Seriously)

Conflict is what makes a story a story, so writing middle grade fiction requires you to know what kind of problems your protagonist would have.

Between reconnecting with your younger self, getting to know some current young’uns, and reading middle grade fiction, you probably already have a few ideas rattling around. I’ll just offer a couple words of advice.

First, if you’re going to tackle a heavy issue—terminal illness, for example—read successful middle grade books that tackle similar issues. You’ll notice that these books skim the surface of the tough stuff. They don’t go too deep and they end on a hopeful note.

Second, whatever adolescent conflict you decide to write about, take it seriously. Even if your narrator isn’t a kid, write from the perspective of a kid. 

As an adult, you might relish a lunch hour sitting alone with a book. But to your readers and your protagonist, this might feel like social isolation on display for the whole world to judge.

Let Their Parents Stay Home

When writing middle grade fiction, remember that the kids guide the story. This means:

  • The biggest character arc belongs to a child protagonist
  • The central conflict is explored through a kid’s perspective
  • Kids make the decisions that move the plot forward
  • Kids reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of those decisions
  • All character growth comes from kids making mistakes and discoveries on their own

Grown-ups must not remove obstacles or solve problems. 

They can be mentors, but even then, you want to use a light touch. Less, “Hey, Mom, what should I do if I’m being followed by a sewer monster only I can see?” More, “Hey, Mom, have you ever felt like there was a big problem only you could see?” 

Keep It Moving

Kids in school uniforms running down a hallway.

Even though middle grade fiction allows you to go deeper than books for younger kids would, your readers are still in it for the plot. Character development matters, but it should be shown through action, not self-reflection.

Keep your characters active and the story moving. 

And remember to keep the book within the ideal page count for this age group. When writing middle grade fiction, the sweet spot is between 30,000 and 50,000 words. 

If you write MG fantasy, you can shoot for a longer word count, but don’t go too crazy. For reference, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is 76,944 words. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is 86,826 words.  

If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, you know Rowling’s books get much longer than that. But she first had to prove she could hold her readers’ attention.

More Resources for Writing Middle Grade Fiction

So, now that you know how to tailor a book to your readers, what about actually building a story?

In that regard, writing middle grade fiction is much like writing anything else. Fortunately, Dabble has a ton of resources for “writing anything else.”

For a thorough and straightforward overview of the entire writing process, you can download Dabble’s free ebook, Let’s Write a Book.

Explore DabbleU for loads of articles and worksheets on topics like character development, story structure, and conflict.

Join the Story Craft Café, a free community where you can connect with other writers to ask questions, find critique partners, and procrastinate with your kind of people.

Finally, if you haven’t tried crafting a story with the Dabble writing tool, yet, I highly recommend checking it out. This thing has everything you need to plan, write, and edit your novel, from the clever Plot Grid to the Comments feature… all without the steep learning curve of other novel writing tools.

A screenshot of the Dabble Plot Grid laying out the scenes of The Lion King in one column and tracking Simba's character arc in the next column.
Use the Dabble Plot Grid to track character arcs, story beats, and more!

Intrigued? You can try all Dabble’s Premium Features for fourteen days for free. You don’t even have to enter a credit card. Just click here.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.