Writing YA vs Adult Fiction

Amy Sundberg and I were recently discussing what makes good young adult reading versus adult reading. Modern YA didn’t exist when I was young, so I never read enough of it to just know-it-when-I-see-it like Amy. Looking at YA as an outsider, there did not appear to be many plot or content dividing lines, as YA is often dark and includes much of the same content as books written for adults. Amy’s observation, which I think is excellent, is that it’s mostly about voice.

You can read her posts on the topic here:

YA or Adult? How to Tell Them Apart

I Know It When I See It: YA Voice

Our initial discussion came up because I found that I was often at odds when writing stories with young protagonists. I would wonder if I was writing YA without knowing it. I could sense that it wasn’t written as YA, but was oblivious as to why. I was just writing a story, after all. A story that could be YA, but wasn’t. Amy’s thoughts about voice finally helped me clarify in my mind a useful differences between YA and adult fiction, and what differentiates an adult voice and a YA voice.

I’m now going to try and elaborate on Amy’s observations. My goal here is to guess as to why certain aspects of points of view, like first person and present tense, work better when targeting teens. My primary theory has to do with the formation of the prefrontal cortex, something that happens by the age of 25.

Here’s what our medical science says. The prefrontal cortex, once fully formed, moderates “correct” behavior (note that we each have our own version of “correct” that gets established) in social situations, and is responsible for:

  • Focusing attention
  • Organizing thoughts and problem solving
  • Foreseeing and weighing possible consequences of behavior
  • Considering the future and making predictions
  • Forming strategies and planning
  • Ability to balance short-term rewards with long term goals
  • Shifting/adjusting behavior when situations change
  • Impulse control and delaying gratification
  • Modulation of intense emotions
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behavior and initiating appropriate behavior
  • Simultaneously considering multiple streams of information when faced with complex and challenging information

So, science states that prior to the full establishment of the prefrontal cortex people generally act more impulsive and emotional than after it has finished developing. No kidding! Young people are also more likely to take risks, interact at a more emotional level with more intensity, and have a tendency to not conservatively plan out the future, but worry about more immediate concerns. As we age this generally changes to some degree once the prefrontal cortex becomes established. I guess this is why parents often fret more about their children and their children’s decisions, while their kids complain that their parents just don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager. Teens and adults think differently. Once again, no kidding! Fine, we all know this, so now let’s look at the list above and apply it to voice.

We use the phrase “set in their ways” to describe many adults.  This appears to be one of the functions of the prefrontal cortex. Adults can find themselves calming down, settling down, and becoming more conservative versions of their youthful selves (even if they do still identify as rebels and radicals, they’re often calmer versions of such.) What I see in adult fiction is a tendency for writers to become more emotionally distant in their writing. They often stick to 3rd person past tense. The workshops I’ve attended, and many editors as well, often push writers in this direction. It seems to be the safe POV. The most easily accepted. I’ve heard adults complain that they don’t like 1st person. In a recent teen writing workshop the students all said they prefered 1st person.

The adult voice is more distant.

The adult voice is more analytical.

The adult voice restricts emotions so as not to make others uncomfortable.

I’m using it right now. This is the problem we prefrontal cortex handcuffed adults have to overcome when writing in a YA voice.

If you’re over 25, examine the list above again. Now imagine tossing out all those inhibitions again. Try a close 1st person perspective voice, one that is emotionally charged, immediate and active.  Emotions are for feeling, not observing. Be impulsive. Take risks. Now. Immediately. Stop thinking so much and react to the bad things that are happening. No need to hold in that sadness or joy. Let it out. Everything might be against us, but we have our friends! If they don’t betray us, which they might, maybe we’ll get through this in one piece. Shit, adults are so full of themselves. Bla, bla, bla. Missing the big picture. Screw that.

Now there’s certainly a sliding scale, as some people are more emotional than others, some more outgoing, and some more practical, no matter the age, but in general most people seem to reduce their risks and search out less emotional entanglements as they age. Thinking back, I once had friends who made crazy short films with me when we were younger. I remember in their late twenties I tried to get us together again only to be told they could no longer risk letting a coworker see them act strange like that. To write YA is not only to risk being seen acting strange, but to let every emotion splash out on the page, bare, without embarrassment, or more accurately, with embarrassment yet unable to inhibit it.

So, when I read a story now that happens to have a youthful protagonist I think I can tell if it’s good YA or not. If it sounds like a young person feeling life without inhibition then it’s genuine. If it’s distantly veiled in a POV where we watch what’s happening from a safe distance, it’s for adults.

I’m thinking we writers over 25 need to ratchet up the empathy and put aside our safe emotional distance if we want to create good YA. To switch from an adult voice to a YA voice, we need to really try and remember what it was like to charge into life knowing your future was unknown and uncertain, and do it with passion, and to be unable to stop ourselves. Feel each moment. Show it without restraint. Don’t holding back. Otherwise, yeah, you’re writing for adults.

These thoughts brought to you by an over-analytical adult.

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