Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction: what’s the difference?

1 Jun

This is something I get asked a lot: what’s the difference between YA and adult fiction? So rather than continuing to reinvent this wheel, I’ll just write a blog and direct people to it from now on. Sneaky, eh?

To begin with it is important to have a protagonist firmly within the standard age–typically younger than 18, but simply making your protagonist 17 isn’t sufficient. Many adult books feature younger characters, but the way the story is told varies.

And, keep in mind, a story’s content will vary between YA and adult. Lots of graphic sex might fly in an adult book, but will usually be considered too much for YA. However, you can include a lot of mature situations in YA as long as you handle it well.

So that said, I think the biggest differences between YA and adult boil down to:

  1. the voice
  2. the length (though that is changing these days)
  3. how the MC views him/herself in the world and reacts to his/her surroundings
  4. the depth of the POV

First of all, voice is critical. My editor and agents both say the number one reason for rejecting YA is that the voice feels inauthentic. You aren’t talking down to teenagers, and you aren’t trying to imitate a teenager. You are simply telling your story as if you were a teenager. That said:

  • Don’t try to learn slang (it’ll be out of date by the time your book comes out anyway)
  • Don’t use “lower-grade” vocabulary
  • Just imagine you’re 16, and tell your story that way (see #3 for more explanation)

Secondly, the word count matters, especially if this is your debut novel. While “times are changing” and YA books are certainly getting longer, the standard rule is 50-90K. 50K would be a short contemporary, 90K would be a standard paranormal/fantasy. Something Strange and Deadly was originally 93K when I sold it, but I had to cut it down to 87K. Then again, the fabulous Sarah J. Maas has a YA fantasy (Queen of Glass, Bloomsbury 2012) that is >120K–but she is the exception, not the rule.

“Word count” is more than just the number of words, though. It’s the scope and complexity of the story. You simply cannot tell a story with twelve POVs and twenty interwoven subplots in a YA novel–at least not in a single book (note: you could pull it off in a series!). Basically, you can’t make George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones into a YA novel. However, in theory, you could expand and complicate a YA novel to transform it into an adult book.

Thirdly, think of how you viewed your life when you were a teen. Teenagers (and adults!) are uncertain, they’re starting to find their places in the world, and they are very wrapped up in their emotions (aren’t we all, though?). As such, YA often moves from a point of self-doubt to surety/autonomy, a point of selfish emotional concern to more selfless.

I’m not saying you need a character who cowers and “doesn’t fit in”, but someone who questions if he/she made the right choice and who sometimes hesitates before decisions. I can’t emphasize enough how a single line of self-doubt can really hype up the YA feel to your novel.

Also, I don’t think every emotion the MC feels should be a Big Deal, but little things ultimately matter more when you’re young. Heck, when I was 15, simply making eye contact with my crush was enough to induce a cyclone inside my chest. Romance matters when you’re a teen, and it is (whether or not you agree) an important part of modern YA storytelling.

These days, a lot of YA is considered “cross-over”, meaning it sells to adults as well. Thanks to Twilight and Harry Potter, a huge number of adults are into teen books. Maybe because, despite being older, we’re still uncertain and emotionally dramatic at heart? I think it actually has a lot to do with the POV, which leads me to the final YA requirement: the average modern YA novel will have a very close first or third person.

We live the story as if we’re in the MC’s head, so filter words are limited and introspection is tightly woven into the action. This is very different from the YA I grew up with (Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey, Lois Duncan, Jane Yolen, etc.) which featured more omniscient POVs and distant thirds.

You certainly can write more distant POV, and it’s certainly around (an example that springs to mind is Lauren DeStefano’s Wither which is first person present, but very distant). Again: the usual YA will have a tight POV.

If you want to really get a handle on YA versus adult, grab some from the same genre–like take a popular YA fantasy and compare it to a popular adult fantasy. For example, compare Graceling by Kristen Cashore to Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Both feature strong female protagonists pitted against a world of political intrigue and danger, but both one is without-a-doubt YA and the other is without-a-doubt adult. Or take Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries and compare it to her Queen of Babble–same thing! (See my awesome Venn diagram.)

What have I missed–what else do you think defines a novel as YA? Do you agree or disagree with my own points?

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

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58 Responses to “Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction: what’s the difference?”

  1. Becca C. June 1, 2011 at 5:35 AM #

    I love this post. Makes perfect sense.

    But… Graceling is in 3rd person :)

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 5:36 AM #

      Haha! Thanks, Becca. Clearly it’s been a while since I read that book. :D

      • Patrice February 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM #

        I just finished my novel but I am having a hard time finding the correct genre for it. It speaks about a teenager who has fallen so deep into her mistakes and insecurities. She is addicted to sex and loves to party. Is this young adult? There are a lot of sex scenes and it seems that it maybe a little too obscene for the ages 12-20.

        • Susan February 27, 2012 at 7:26 PM #

          It really all boils down to the voice of the novel and your target reading age group. If your book is intended for teens and it reads with a YA voice, then you’ve got a very edgy teen novel on your hands.

          Does that help?

  2. Lydia Sharp June 1, 2011 at 7:45 AM #

    This is a great, thorough analysis to use as a reference. Thank you. :)

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 9:38 AM #

      You’re very welcome, Lydia!! :D

  3. Rowenna June 1, 2011 at 8:39 AM #

    Awesome post! I tend to really see writing as stemming from character in most cases–and so understanding YA vs adult for me comes from character, too. A YA protag will see, react to, and interact with the world in a very different way than an adult…and so drives the story arc in a different way, too. This post totally clarified my understanding of the differences. You’re just a big dose of awesome!

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 9:39 AM #

      Aw, thanks! I love being called “a dose of awesome”! :D

      And yeah, YA versus adult really does boil down to character–even in real life! I interacted very differently with the world when I was 16 than I do now!

  4. ChemistKen June 1, 2011 at 8:47 AM #

    Susan,

    What about the MC in YA? Isn’t the MC usually female?

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 9:44 AM #

      Not necessarily. I’d say most YA novels feature heroines because the majority of buyers are girls/women. However, plenty of YA novels feature male protagonists, and editors are always on the lookout for more “boy books”.

      A few hyped-up books with male MCs: Holly Black’s WHITE CAT, Hannah Moskowitz’s INVINCIBLE SUMMER, or HOLD ME CLOSER, NECROMANCER by Lish McBride.

      • Amber June 1, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

        Another great male POV is Freefall by Mindi Scott :)

        • Susan June 2, 2011 at 5:11 AM #

          Oooh, great suggestion! Thanks, Amber!

      • Barb February 6, 2012 at 7:26 AM #

        Also, Chinese Handcuffs has a male protag.- It is very good!

  5. Meredith June 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM #

    Excellent post, Sooz! This is one of the best breakdowns of the YA/adult difference I’ve ever read.

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 10:39 AM #

      Thanks, Meredith!! I’m flattered you think so. :D

  6. sparklinga June 1, 2011 at 10:20 AM #

    Awesome post, Sooz! :D *not surprised because you always write awesome posts* And I love your Venn diagram :)

    I do have a question, though: is 18 the cut-off age for YA books? I have wondered that for quite some time lol

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 10:40 AM #

      You know, the age varies. These days, there are older “YA” protags–teens in college, for example. I think the standard is 18 or younger, but 19 and maybe even 20 *could* work. :)

  7. Bee June 1, 2011 at 10:30 AM #

    I think voice makes the biggest difference between YA and Adult Novels, but strangely I’ve found Meg Cabot’s YA and adult novels quite similar where voice is concerned.

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 10:41 AM #

      Yeah, Meg Cabot has a very distinctive contemporary/funny voice–it typifies her storytelling. However, the content of her stories will vary, and (to some extent) how maturely the MC behaves/reacts.

  8. Janya June 1, 2011 at 10:58 AM #

    Thanks Susan! I was always wondering what the difference between the the two was, and this is a great analysis :)

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 2:34 PM #

      Thanks, Janya! I’m glad you could find it useful. :)

  9. Mac_V June 1, 2011 at 11:04 AM #

    LOVE the venn diagram. It is very cool. I really liked this post. So many people are confused about what makes YA different and set apart. So many people have no idea what it really is and when I tell them I want to write YA, they think it’s just books that are easier to write because they’re for a younger audience. Hence why I like the venn diagram. It just goes to show that YA is totally comparable to any other genre and kind of writing, it’s just the way it’s written that is different. And, if anything, it’s harder to write than adult fiction– we have so many things to consider about our audience and these topics that we have to tackle in certain ways for that audience. It takes so much work! Thanks for explaining it so well, Sooz! :)

    Mer <3

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 2:37 PM #

      YA is most definitely comparable to adult fiction–it’s the same genre, just a different target age group. YA and adult fiction have the same the requirements for a good story, but non-writers don’t always seem to understand this!!

  10. Sarah J. Maas June 1, 2011 at 12:43 PM #

    LOVED this post!! Fantastic job, Sooz! I’m totally referring people to this!!! <3 <3 <3

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 2:37 PM #

      Aww, danke sehr. <3

  11. Amber June 1, 2011 at 12:53 PM #

    I loved this post! I’ve written both YA and adult stories before and you really nailed down some differneces – some I hadn’t even thought of. I liked how you pointed out never todumb down in YA. I’ve read a lot of books where it seems like the author was just trying way too hard and it kills the story.

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 2:39 PM #

      Yeah, “dumbing down” is just absurd! I was such an avid reader growing up, and I learned so much in terms of vocabulary and syntax. If a book ever felt lecture-y or dumb-ified (like my made-up words?), I would never have read it. Readers are smart people, no matter their age. :D

  12. thegildedpage June 1, 2011 at 1:07 PM #

    Love this. : DD

    The only thing I that sometimes I feel is that the self-doubt to selflessness concept is a little too limiting (it definitely crops up a lot – I know what you mean about it showing up often!!). I think that’s just one of many personal journeys a YA character can take – I feel like a YA voice can be self-assured, but find doubt in the world/people around them, and through that be unsure of their place. That’s why dystopian and paranormal are so popular, yus? : 3 Because they both deal with finding out that the world isn’t what they thought it was, just in a much more physical way than we actually experience.

    Mmm. I guess what I’m trying to say that I love the stories where the character knows who they are (not consciously, just in that’s how it resonates in the voice), and finds out where they fit to the world (or don’t fit – a la Tally Youngblood). I think it draws me in more. But I’m also not a fan of characters who are self-aware (thus, conscious self-doubt), but more so fall in love with stories with characters who blaze on ahead (Alanna/Aly of Pirate’s Swoop, Harry Potter, Katniss).

    To me, YA is about finding resolution, and finding it for yourself because you need it. The self-doubt/selflessness is parallel to world-jumping in general, no? : ) Scott Westerfeld said somewhere (don’t quote me on this, I read it a long tiiiimeee agoooo) that he loves writing for young adults because they’re willing to try a lot more difference in novels than adults. I think the same can be said for the difference in voice: YA voices are malleable, the characters grow rapidly and dramtically, in whichever direction. And their worlds change on them, either because of how they see it or how it literally morphs itself. The only other place you find the same amount of self-discovery (in a completely different way, of course), is literary fiction. And I dunno about you, but being an English Lit major, I’m a little exhausted by literary fiction at the end of the school year.

    It’s why I love it, anyway. : P (Sorry for the essay, ahahaha~)

    - Kae

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 2:42 PM #

      You make a really great point, Kae! A lot of YA is that characters grow rapidly, learn from their mistakes, and “discover themselves”. But, I think it happens in a more direct way than literary fiction (and yes, I can bet you’re exhausted by that genre now!). I like literary fiction in small doses, thanks–otherwise, I wind up feeling too emo. ;)

  13. Chantal June 1, 2011 at 4:27 PM #

    I love all your posts Sooz, I will definitely refer back to this <3

    • Susan June 1, 2011 at 5:29 PM #

      ::blushes:: Thanks, Chantal. What a nice thing to say–and I’m so glad you liked this! :D

  14. Jules Wood June 1, 2011 at 9:33 PM #

    Hey Sooz!

    Smart, thoughtful post, as always! One comment though – I just wonder if you explained the *difference* between adult and YA literature well enough here. I think you made excellent points about identifying YA, but I’m not sure if you made enough comparisons/contrasts with adult literature. For instance, in the section about voice, you say that in YA literature, a close-first or -third POV is usually used. I completely agree. But is that distinctive to YA literature? Or is it that adult literature CAN have a close-first or -third POV, but uses other styles just as often? So the distinctive element of POV in YA is its constancy? So what then is the true difference between YA and adult? Voice? What voice does adult lit use? (Etc.) You mentioned that a young protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is YA, which I think is a super interesting point, but I’m not sure it’s fully explored.

    Others may not agree that you didn’t cover the adult side of the story, so this is totally just a suggestion! :) Great job!

    • Susan June 2, 2011 at 3:16 AM #

      You make a really great point, Jules. I didn’t go into adult at all–I guess because I usually get the question “How is YA different from adult?” or “How do I make my book YA, not adult?” I think it’d take me a loooooot longer to write about what makes a book adult–mostly because there is SO much more variation. When you get into various genres…oy vey!

      And what I meant was that all the elements go together to create YA: voice, length/complexity, the MC’s emotional reactions/viewpoint, and the depth of the POV. Admittedly, there are exceptions to these points–many, I’m sure–but I do feel that modern YA usually has these aspects. And, of course, these will change over time just as what I grew up with changed to this. :)

      If you ever write your own post on this, I’d LOVE to read it!! So please share, yeah? I’m sure you can do a much better job. :D

  15. nimmy June 2, 2011 at 2:10 PM #

    I’m personally very much glad that I somehow stumbled across this blog… just awesome. At least someone is there who has a good helping hand in this plunging time of writing-crisis. At least a bit of spare from being tame of all the rejections from editors and publication houses.

    • Susan June 6, 2011 at 2:19 AM #

      Thanks, and good luck with your writing! :)

  16. JohnnyGibson June 3, 2011 at 12:42 PM #

    Good article. I’ve been thinking about delving into YA fiction, so this will help. The general difference I notice in story is:

    -For YA its about disrupting the status quo.

    -For Adult Fic its about maintaining the status quo.

    • Susan June 6, 2011 at 2:21 AM #

      Interesting thought. I’m not sure that’s always true since a huge part of YA is actually finding your place within the status quo, and I can think of plenty of adult fic in which disruption/change is an integral piece of the plot (anything by Kurt Vonnegut, for example). That said, I think you make an interesting point–I ought to sit down with a few YA and adult books and compare based on this idea! :)

  17. Deb June 5, 2011 at 8:35 AM #

    Great post. But… what about late-college aged? My MC is 19 and dealing with very adult stuff, but there’s a lot of the self-doubt you mention. Also, most of the characters she interacts with are older. Someone teased me last year about a post-YA market- does that really exist?

    • Susan June 6, 2011 at 2:34 AM #

      I was waiting for someone to ask this. ;)

      You can definitely have a college-aged teen. I would say older college moves into a different realm (though don’t quote me on that!), but early college is definitely still “upper YA” or “post-YA”. That market definitely exists, and from what I’ve heard, it’s slowly growing. A lot of teens are curious about college and what comes *after* high school, so they’re interested in these sorts of books. And, as you say, we still deal with the same issues as we did in high school, just in a different setting.

  18. Caitlin Vanasse June 5, 2011 at 9:53 AM #

    This post was a delight. I’m glad that you pointed out length and used your own experience of cutting Something Strange and Deadly down as an example, and even if Sarah is the exception length wise, didn’t she still cut some huge amount out in the editing process as well?

    • Susan June 6, 2011 at 2:37 AM #

      Yeah, Sarah did have to cut, but you should ask her about that. I think her BIG cut was more to have it fit into the realm of what buyers/publishers consider acceptable, and now she is more just refining what she has. Her length is primarily due to the fact that she has an incredibly complex (in a good way!) plot as well as a vivid, deeply build world. That sort of fantasy will always take a LOT of pages–though, it’s still better to try to fit under the 90K. Again, Sarah’s QUEEN OF GLASS is an exception (a wonderful and well-deserved exception), but not the rule. :)

  19. Eva Rieder April 9, 2012 at 1:22 AM #

    This is a great blog entry to distinguish between the two, Susan…and though I’m reading this nearly a year after you wrote it, it’s still relevant. Nicely done, and thanks for sharing!

  20. Pagemeister July 27, 2012 at 12:02 AM #

    So, I have but one question, a question which will aid me in identifying my target audience. I would like to preface this question with an observation. I love to write. I write from my heart and soul, pumping everything I have into my work. In doing so, I do not usually consider my “target audience” in the writing process. My most current work deals with a set of characters afflicted with a kind of amnesia. They thrown into a desolate, unforgiving, unfamiliar world with unfamiliar people and must adjust themselves accordingly. A couple of the amnesiacs become absorbed within themselves, building up walls and keeping others at arm’s length–a defensive mechanism. With their amnesia, they have to come to terms with re-discovering who they are. If the characters are, say in the age group of late twenties to early thirties, would this self-examination/self-exploration and re-discovery of themselves and the world in which they live be more attuned to YA or to adult fiction? Your answering this question would undoubtedly prove most useful. Thank you for your contribution to literature through writing and thank you for this post.
    –The Pagemeister

  21. LaPriest Robinson October 21, 2012 at 9:23 PM #

    yes, this happened to be helpful. But I have no clue what Pov means? lol thx for the blog though.

    • Diana December 17, 2012 at 7:22 PM #

      POV means point of view. I have a question. I’m writing a story with a pov that is mostly a teenaged girl, but there are two others. One is her father, a sheriff who is investigating a string of murders that just happen to be people the girl knows. The other is the killer. Can that still be YA? I don’t need to get all graphic and sexy with it.

  22. White Thompson January 19, 2013 at 9:12 PM #

    I guess another difference is that it takes real talent and skill to write a compelling piece of literary fiction, where any chump with a story can tell a young adult novel.

  23. deaubreydigest February 8, 2013 at 8:35 PM #

    Reblogged this on The DeAubreyDigest and commented:
    I’ve been thinking of writing a young adult novel following one of the minor characters in my adult novels when she was younger. This article came up in my research and I think it’s a really well written post. Of course I had to share!

  24. Sean Ammirati April 3, 2013 at 3:20 AM #

    hey, I’m writing a novel right now and it seems to be sort of in the middle. The protagonist is 19 years old, and just started college. There is sex scenes, but it doesn’t get too into it. And the way he talks is very fitting for a YA novel, I think, a lot of angst. The only problem is, he experiments with a lot of drugs and it leads to his demise. It is very descriptive in the drug use. Do you think that I’d have to make it an adult novel for that reason? I’m almost certain that the last two chapters would be pretty disturbing to a 12 year old.

  25. Daniel Sanchez May 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM #

    Fantastic job explaining that. I just wanted to comment to say I appreciated the great job you did CLEARLY explaining the multiple differences.

  26. Elena Washington December 29, 2013 at 9:53 PM #

    Great post, really loved it. You may be interested in this novel about witches

  27. heldenkline April 21, 2014 at 1:14 AM #

    The female protagonist has her name mentioned by the person conversing with her….over and over and over. In an ordinary conversation, we don’t have to say the person’s name repeatedly. We just talk to her. She has two guys in love with her &/or fighting over her. The novels are written in the present tense.

  28. vancouverislandgrace November 17, 2014 at 11:50 PM #

    Reblogged this on Van Isle Gal.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Favorite Tweets for Writers – Week Ending 6/3/2011 « All About Writing - June 13, 2011

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    [...] Dennard’s excellent full blog article on YA vs. adult fiction, please follow this link: http://letthewordsflow.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/writing-ya-versus-adult-fiction-whats-the-difference… Be Sociable, Share! Tweet This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Eva Marquez. [...]

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    […] condescension. Susan Dennard, author of Something Strange and Deadly, is correct in her blog post Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction when she […]

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