Writing for all ages: why do adults read YA novels?

Depending on which survey you read, adults buy anywhere from 55 to 80 percent of YA novels, and they make a substantial number of those purchases for themselves, but why is YA fiction writing for all ages? Here are a few reasons along with writing tips that writers of all types of fiction can take from YA’s global success:

The first thing to keep in mind is that YA is not a genre but a marketing category. YA books may share little in common besides the age of the protagonists. That age is roughly 15 to 17 years old since — as conventional publishing wisdom goes — teens want to read about a protagonist a little bit older than themselves. Of course, this seems less relevant when we consider that teens continue reading YA literature well into their twenties and beyond and that plenty of people who became adults before YA even existed as a category devour these books as well. Still, it remains the one constant in a category that includes books of fantasy, science fiction, romance, adventure, horror and more.

A number of aspects of YA set it apart from adult fiction yet also make it appealing to adult readers. First, however, let’s dispel a few common notions about YA fiction. One is that there are taboo subjects that are never included in novels for older teenagers. This may have been the case at one time, but today’s YA is frank about subjects such as sexuality, crime, violence and drug abuse. This does not mean that all YA fiction is dark, but it does mean that YA writers need not restrict themselves entirely in terms of subject matter, theme, language or incidents.

Some people also believe that YA fiction is of lower quality than adult fiction. The truth is that just as with all types of fiction, there are well-written and poorly-written YA novels. Some of those novels are profound and insightful and some are shallow, but there is nothing inherently inferior about a novel aimed at teens versus one written for adults.

Teenagers and adults alike love YA fiction for these reasons:

Writing for all ages: YA and fast-paced plots

Younger readers may lack the patience for a novel that takes its time, so YA novels tend to have plots that move. These plots tend to kick off early with a bang. Think about the beginning of Harry Potter, the book series that might have set off the modern YA fiction craze: a mistreated orphan boy gets word that he is destined to be a magician and is whisked off to magic school. Who would be able to put a book down after an opening like that? As it turned out, almost nobody could.

YA novels have relatable characters

YA characters aren’t always likeable, at least not at the start, and they all have flaws, but they tend to be characters readers can relate to. After all, these are teenagers, so even the extraordinary Harry Potters of YA fiction are in many ways ordinary teens. Being able to identify so strongly with the protagonists of these books can be an exhilarating experience for both teens and adults. Teens, who sometimes feel disempowered due to being subject to authority or being bullied, can enjoy a particular benefit from reading about others their own age who overcome obstacles, but the same is true for adults as well. Every single adult was once a teenager, and it is easy to identify with these young characters in fiction.

Nostalgia

Teenaged years might rouse nostalgia, even if in actuality they didn’t feel so great at the time. YA fiction gives readers of all ages the opportunity to relive that feeling. This doesn’t mean that YA fiction isn’t often dark and difficult. After all, dystopias and end-of-the-world stories are among the most popular subgenres in YA fiction. There’s an awful lot of tragedy in the YA world as well. Romances are doomed when one character dies; characters are often orphans who find themselves alone in the world.

However, YA fiction is not unremitting gloom either. Most of it is hopeful even through the darkness, and much of it deals with characters finding an identity and strength and becoming empowered against great odds. For both young people and adults, this can be a powerful and uplifting message.

These big stories point to another reason that YA fiction is so popular:

Many YA novels use universal story plots

YA novels tend to be about big topics such as falling in love for the first time or the end of the world. Whether it’s a realist novel like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars or the Harry Potter series, these books tend to deal with larger-than-life stories in which the enemy is clear whether it’s cancer or an evil wizard.

That’s not to say that these novels take simplistic approaches to their subject matter. For example, as the Hunger Games trilogy progresses, neither side escapes critique as both are equally prepared to use Katniss for their purposes as much as possible. All the same, faced with the commute to a the office, worries about mortgage payments or the economy or family problems, many adults welcome escapist stories about revolutions or alien invasions.

If YA fiction is so wildly popular with adults, does that mean that adult fiction is doing something wrong? This is not necessarily true; adult fiction can cover a number of topics and themes that would be of limited or no interest to teen audiences, and there is certainly a place in fiction for complexities of language, style and structure. However, writers who are interested in employing the devices of YA fiction to write across the generational divide can certainly do so whether their book is primarily aimed at younger or older readers. Here are some ways to write novels for all ages:

Streamline your plot

Young adults have a lot of distractions for their attention including video games, social media and other books. They aren’t going to stick around for meandering or overly complex plot lines. You can mimic the strong plotlines of YA novels in your writing, whether your novel concept fits the YA category or not. In addition to having a more simple, streamlined plot, get the main action started as early as possible. Put your character in the middle of a ‘what if?’ type of precipitating incident from the first page so that your readers can’t put the book down.

Write clean prose

YA fiction is often told in the first-person voice of the protagonist, and even when it is not, it tends to be clear and uncluttered stylistically. This is not necessarily a superior way of writing a novel; some writers will prefer to aim for more dense, lyrical, complex prose, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. But you may capture a larger segment of readers with simpler prose. In fact, as The Magicians author Lev Grossman points out, even readers who appreciate very complex novels can enjoy taking something of a break with YA fiction from time to time. Given that Grossman’s novel is frequently referred to as ‘Harry Potter for adults,’ it is likely that he knows what he’s talking about.

Give readers a little wish fulfilment

When we reach adulthood, we might think wish fulfilment and escape are somehow bad or at least immature. However, this element of wish fulfilment is one of the most attractive aspects of YA fiction for readers of all ages. Characters in YA fiction tend to be resourceful and courageous, and they often go on huge adventures. Even the characters in more realistic YA novels tend to lead exciting lives. This gap between the life of YA characters and YA readers has been lampooned a few times such as with the Twitter hashtag #VeryRealisticYA.

One thing to remember about YA writing and lessons from YA writing is that simplicity does not mean simplistic. YA writers work just as hard as writers of adult fiction and are just as serious about what they do. YA novels may be easier, breezier reading than some adult novels, but they are not lacking in complexity or thoughtfulness.

With YA fiction as popular amongst adult readers as with teens, writers might do well to examine the popularity of this category and what about it appeals to such a large demographic of readers. Compelling plots, easy-to-read prose, strong characters, and stories and situations that provide an element of wish fulfilment for readers are all elements of YA that adult writers can use in their own work.

Do you have a story concept that you could turn into writing for all ages? Go here to start creating a plot and story blueprint for your novel.

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  • I think that many YA novels focus on core issues many adults ignore. Teenagers are known for being honest and cutting the BS. So when they wrestle with identity, feeling like they don’t belong, or fear — it can boil it down to the raw essence of those feelings that I think a lot of adults find refreshing (not to mention that everyone wrestles with those issues).

  • njn

    I still enjoy YA novels. I just finished reading a few of Heinlein’s YA books. “Sort of” outdated, but still a good read. Those got me into some of his other novels and other sci-fi authors. I got into his YA novels from reading Andre Norton. With that background and the 1st Star Trek I went on into “The Hobbit” etc and into fantasy. The journey has been a satisfying one.

    YA’s do feel things so intensely and give life all they can. The novels so often show how resourceful they can be with or without adult guidance. They are much more straight forward than many adult novels.

    • Thanks for the insights! I must admit I don’t know Heinlein – off to look them up now. Good point about YA, sometimes a straightforward book is just what you need.

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