Since I spent the summer teaching writing workshops for both adult and teen writers, I’ve been thinking more about the basics than I usually do. I’ve been thinking about plotting and structuring a young adult novel.
So I thought I’d talk today about the most basic of the basics–the structure of a novel, and specifically, a young adult novel.
At its most basic, when structuring a young adult novel there should be 6 components, broken down like this:
Like any good novel, your YA novel should immediately draw readers in using a combination of voice/mystery/action/atmosphere. In HAVEN, I tried to set an atmospheric opening with a little bit of mystery. Patrick Ness’s THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO opens with a particularly strong, distinct voice, as well as some mystery. In the opening pages, you want to leave readers with questions, not answers: Why was Violet just dumped at her new school? What is she trying to hide from the rest of the world? Who is this boy, and what kind of world does he live in where animals speak?
This is the event that sets your story in motion. From this point on, there’s no turning back for your protagonist. Something has happened/changed/affected your character in a way that he/she can’t ignore. In Beth Revis’ ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, the protagonist wakes up from a cryogenic sleep a hundred (two hundred?) years before she’s supposed to, and discovers someone might have been trying to kill her. There’s no going back now.
–This provides the structure/plot that drives your story forward. What does your character want more than anything? Why does she want it? What/Who is keeping her from obtaining/achieving it? Answer these questions, and you’ve got yourself a plot–at least, the bare bones of one.
THE GUTS OF THE STORY—
A balance of dialogue, narration, and details (the right details for your story–don’t confuse readers with the wrong details!).
The moment in your story where it appears as if all has been lost to the protagonist. He/she is backed into a corner, and must do something at this point to resolve the story, one way or another.
The moment where the protagonist either achieves or doesn’t achieve his/her goal. Ideally, the protagonist has learned something about herself over the course of the journey and/or achieved some sort of personal growth.
Specifically for YA, adults should not play a major role in the resolution. In other words, your teen protagonist should be the one solving things/figuring it out, not his/her parents or favorite aunt. That’s not to say that adults need to be totally absent–for instance, say your story is about a teen with an eating disorder. She’s in denial, refusing to admit she has a problem or seek help. In this case, having her decide to approach her parents and admit that she has a problem and needs help might be part of an appropriate resolution. But having her favorite aunt simply make those choices for her, forcing her to seek treatment, would not be appropriate.
Here’s the key, as far as writing YA fiction goes and structuring a young adult novel–you can’t simply set out to write a story that teaches a moral lesson. Yes, you can have meaningful themes (for example, there are really strong themes explored in Veronica Roth’s excellent DIVERGENT, touching on things like politics, courage, free-will. Those themes make the story richer, more compelling. But trust me, they are not the purpose of the novel.
Don’t insult your teen readers by trying to disguise a “lesson” as a novel. Just…don’t.
And that is perhaps the most important message for aspiring YA authors.
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.