Your Complete Guide to Young Adult Fiction: What It Is, Examples, How to Write

Hannah Lee Kidder
July 07, 2023 | 10 mins

Young adult fiction, or YA, is one of the highest-selling types of fiction, worth billions of dollars annually. Much of the success is due to the widespread appeal of these books, being read and enjoyed by people of all ages (even though this genre is targeted at teens) who want to get lost in the fantastical world of the characters. Some of the top YA novels have even been turned into popular movies.

For example, think of these famous YA book titles and series: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, and The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo.

Many make a full-time income as authors of young adult fiction (you can calculate your book royalties here).

But getting started can be intimidating. It's important to have a clear vision, align your book correctly within the genre, and develop a story that's both appropriate and entertaining for young readers. To help you do just that, we're going to clearly define what young adult fiction is and share a step-by-step guide to writing a successful book.

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What is young adult fiction?

Young adult fiction, often abbreviated as YA fiction, refers to a genre of literature primarily targeted at teenage readers, typically between the ages of 12 and 18. This genre is meant to act as a buffer to prepare readers for the leap from children’s literature to adult books.

So what makes a book YA?

The protagonists in YA books are typically teenagers dealing with teenage problems. These books include the experiences, emotions, and challenges faced by young adults as they navigate adolescence and transition into adulthood.

It's important to note that young adult fiction covers a broad range of genres, including contemporary, romance, fantasy, science fiction, dystopian, mystery, historical fiction, and more. YA dystopian books and YA romance novels are some of the most common, and some authors may even experiment with mixed-genre books that may blur the lines between genres.

YA books can also be just about any length. Depending on the story you want to write, you could opt to pen it as a YA short story, novella, or full-length novel.

Related: Should You Write a Novel or a Novella?

The controversy around the YA genre

While the original target demographic of YA fiction was teenagers, that age group only makes up about half of the readership of YA. The other half is composed of adults who would like to hang on to the fun and easy world of young adult literature – perhaps feeling a sense of nostalgia from the writing.

This shift in ages has muddied the waters of what exactly constitutes YA.

When YA was exclusively for young adults, the genre's subject matter revolved solely around teenagers' experiences. It appealed to their interests, life experience, and understanding.

With adults moving into (or clinging to) this space developed for children, books classifying themselves as “young adult” are now featuring more mature story arcs and concepts to feed the interests of an older crowd.

The genre was developed to transition readers from children’s books into adult literature, but now it often skews further to adult literature, which was not quite the point. Many adults are now complaining that most young adult fiction books have too many mature themes for children.

As a result of these conflicting views, we’ve seen the rising of a new genre: new adult.

What is the new adult fiction genre?

New Adult, or NA, is a spinoff of the young adult fiction genre, meant for readers between 18 and 29, though it is not formally recognized by most traditional publishers.

While the Young Adult book age range includes pre-teens and teens up to 18, the New Adult book genre typically follows college-aged teens and young adults. Often NA books can also be categorized into YA or the standard adult genres depending on the framing and content.

The genre doesn’t have many strong examples to defend itself right now, but there is certainly a reader market for it, and some editors and publishers are eyeing its potential. Expect New Adult to flourish into its own official genre in the coming years.

The difference between young adult, new adult, and adult fiction

Many authors imagine themselves writing young adult fiction, only to get into the story and realize they actually have a new adult or mature adult book on their hands. That's totally fine!

But, due to the young audience, it's very important to understand the differences and market your book correctly.

The writing style in YA fiction tends to be accessible and engaging, capturing the attention of young readers. While YA fiction is primarily aimed at teenagers, it is not limited to this audience, and many adults also enjoy reading YA novels for their relatable themes, strong character development, endearing romance tropes, and engaging storytelling.

Meanwhile, new adult fiction bridges the gap between young adult and adult fiction. It targets readers in their late teens to early twenties, usually between 18 and 25 years old. NA fiction often delves into the challenges and transitions faced by characters as they navigate the period between adolescence and adulthood. The themes and characters in NA fiction can be more mature and explore topics like college life, career choices, independence, and the complexities of early adulthood.

Finally, adult fiction is intended for anyone 18 years old and above. You are more likely to see more adult-aged protagonists in these novels. And the themes explored in adult fiction can be more complex and deal with a broader range of life experiences, relationships (such as marriage, divorce, having children, etc), societal issues, and mature content, such as what you might encounter in spicy romance or dark romance books (neither of which are suitable for younger readers).

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How to write a successful young adult novel in 6 steps

Regardless of which audience you write for, the process will be largely the same.

The first step you must take is actually deciding to write the book.

Then, you'll want to work toward two of the most important milestones of any book journey. You must finish the outline of your book and the first rough draft.

Most of the differences of writing a YA novel comes to the content and tone in the writing. So here are a few steps you can take to write a book young people will love to read.

1. Know your audience

You can’t write for an audience you don’t understand. As with any book, you need to know your ideal reader and write for them.

If you’re writing young adult fiction, you should know what teens are interested in, how they think, and how they communicate. If you’re far removed from your teen years and don’t have young people you frequently socialize with, you might consider finding opportunities to speak with teenagers.

Another method is reading popular young adult fiction (ones that teenagers are actually reading).

Take notes on content, tone, voice, character traits, and tropes that you notice pop up in multiple popular books.

2. Age the characters correctly

As a general rule, characters should be in the age group of your target demographic, so your character cast should mostly consist of teenagers.

There’s also a huge difference between 12-year-olds and 18-year-olds (and what they’re interested in), so it's important that you are precise when aging characters.

A great tip many YA authors incorporate is aging the characters a year or two above the age of their ideal reader because children look up to older kids.

For example, as a 5 and 6-year-old, my favorite reads were in the American Girl series, which featured 9-year-old protagonists. And when I was 10, my favorite books were The Babysitters’ Club, which featured girls 11 to 13 years old.

You can include many types of characters, so don't just think about your protagonist but also the ages and characteristics of the people they will interact with. You can also use a character bio template to help you map out the character development of each person in your story.

3. Be real, and write real characters

Young people can smell the difference between authenticity and fakeness from miles away. If you’re not being genuine, your characters and story will not be likable or relatable.

Teens speak in particular ways that constantly fluctuate. It’s important to find a balance between being modern but not being so trendy that your book will be a complete cringe to read within a couple of years.

There’s a lot of controversy around “dating” a book by including references, but I tend to disagree.

Do people read Jane Austen and think it’s irrelevant because of the times and customs we have very little personal context for? Of course not! They’re good books! And they act as fascinating social time capsules.

So maybe you reference TikTok but avoid referencing specific TikTok trends.

Maybe you do use slang words, but you use ones that are currently being recycled from ten or twenty years ago—those have more cultural context than using slang and references that will obviously be short-lived and likely never return to relevance.

Work to build a realistic world with realistic characters that real teens can relate to.

4. Nail the voice

Writing teenagers might be one of the most difficult writing tones and voices to master.

Some writers of young adult fiction absolutely excel in this—like Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries. She takes a casual and relaxed tone to voice her main character, Mia:

“Like everybody doesn't already think I'm a freak. I'm practically the biggest freak in the entire school. I mean, let's face it: I'm five foot nine, flat-chested, and a freshman. How much more of a freak could I be?” — The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot

Some other YA autors have found wild success, but their writing voice is under constant critique—like John Green, author of Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars. Many readers find Green’s prose to be too elevated for teenagers, but he defends this by saying that teenagers are smarter than most people give them credit for.

“I must talk, and you must listen, for we are engaged here in the most important pursuit in history: the search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? In short: What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?” — Looking for Alaska, John Green

As you can see, different authors take wildly different approaches to writing teenagers. Finding a balance that suits your writing style and appeals to teenagers can be difficult, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Seeking opinions from your target demographic can also help.

5. Don’t drive a moral too hard

No one wants to be preached to, especially teenagers. If your heart is in writing young adult fiction, you probably have an affinity for young people. You likely want the best for them.

But turning your YA novel into an opportunity to lecture them about sex, drugs, and rock and roll isn’t going to help young people. It's going to repel them.

If you still want to weave in some wisdom, try to do it naturally. Maybe you include a sexual experience, and instead of having a whole dialogue about safe sex, contraceptives, and abstinence, you have a quick line about condoms from one of the participants.

When instilling morals in teenagers, tread lightly, if you tread at all.

6. Don’t water it down

If you’re writing for young adults, you have to understand their emotional intelligence and general perception of the world. While they usually have less experience than adult readers and are still learning in many ways, they are not stupid.

Every generation is smarter than the last, so there’s a good chance your young audience has equal or greater capacity than you do—try to keep that in mind.

If you belittle your teen readers by watering down your stories because you think they can’t understand it, here is a list of things they will pick up:

  • On it

And here is a list of things they will not pick up:

  • Another one of your books (ever again)

Writing young adult fiction isn’t so different from writing for any other genre. They have the same fundamentals of all fiction books. Respect your readership, remember their life experiences, and write good stories!

Examples of some young adult fiction subgenres

Young adult books come in all genres. Mystery, action-adventure, romance, literary, comedy, contemporary, dystopian, sci-fi, fantasy series… Nearly every adult book genre has a corresponding young adult fiction subgenre.

Let’s look at some famous examples of young adult books in some major book genres.

Young adult mystery books

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Young adult action-adventure books

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Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Young adult contemporary books

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Young adult dystopian books

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Young adult romance books

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Reputation by Lex Croucher

Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

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