Key Essentials for An Authentic YA (Or Adult) Voice

Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

On Oct 17th at the KILL ZONE blog, I critiqued the first page of an anonymous author’s work –A Game of Days. Some interesting comments on the YA voice came from this post and I wanted to share more on what I’ve learned from writing for the teen market. My personal epiphanies.
Writing for the Young Adult (YA) market and capturing the voice of YA is less about word choices (and getting the teen speak down) than it is about getting the age appropriate decisions and attitude right. Urban fantasy or post apocalyptic plots can build on a world that is unique and unfamiliar. Books like the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or the Divergent series by Veronica Roth can have its own voice, so teens are familiar with reading books like this.
When I went looking for solid examples of teen dialogue or introspection to share at a workshop, I searched some top selling YA books, only to find the voice I expected wasn’t there. Sure there are YA books where authors can sound authentically teen, but to keep up the realism for a whole book can be a challenge and an overabundance of “teen speak” can date the banter or be too much for adult readers to catch. (Yes, adults are HUGE readers of YA.)

As you read through this list, think about how each of these tips might also apply to writing ANY voice, even book intended for adults. Many of these tips work for cross-genre writing.
Key Essentials for An Authentic YA Voice:
1.) Use First Person or Deep Point of View (POV)—This technique of “deep” POV, or “close third” person, is used in fiction writing as a glimpse into the head of your character. In YA, I think of deep POV or close third as conversational thoughts deep inside your teen. First person POV is like reading someone’s diary.

2.) Don’t be afraid to mix POVs—You can mix POVs (for example, first person for your storyteller and third person for other characters), but since it’s your story, only you can decide how you want it to be told. Many YA stories are in first person, but more authors are exploring a mix. By adding in the element of third person for other characters, you can let the reader in on what is happening outside your character’s head and add twists to your plot more effectively. Plus if you have secondary characters or villains who may threaten your protagonist, letting the reader in on what’s in their head can make the reader more fearful for your hero/heroine. (Most adult books are not in first POV, but first POV is very intimate and fun to write. My current adult book project has first POV for the main character, but third for everyone else. Very liberating.)

3.) Don’t worry about your vocabulary. Today’s teen reader can handle it. There’s no need to simplify your choice of words or sentence structure if the character warrants it. Just be mindful of the experience level and education of the teen in your story. A homeless kid without much education won’t have an extensive vocabulary unless there’s a good reason for it. If you’re writing a futuristic dystopian book, you’ll be world building and perhaps coming up with your own vocabulary or teen life choices or social customs that would be different from a contemporary YA.

4.) Character first or story first? In my adult fiction thrillers, characters usually come at me first, but in YA I think it’s important to conceive a plot then fit the best characters to the premise. This may help you conjure the most fitting character and voice for the story, without creating a cookie-cutter teen that follows you from book to book.

5.) Don’t force it. As many kinds of teens there are, that’s how many varied “voices” you can create. As long as the story is compelling and the characters draw in the reader, the voice of YA only needs to match the tone, age, and character of that story. Don’t force voice or language that doesn’t seem real to you. Your protagonist’s voice should come naturally from the story premise and the conflict, filtered through your head as the author. If you force it, it will show.

6.) How does the story and character motivation affect your storyteller’s voice? One of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with the sarcastic voice. Biting sarcasm alone does not make a YA story. Without a reason for this behavior, the author runs the risk of making their character unbearable, unlikeable and a real turnoff for the reader. The manuscript must have a cohesive story with solid character motivation to go along with the attitude. Even if the voice is great, what happens? Something needs to happen. And if your character starts off with a good reason to be snarky, give them a journey that will change them by the end of the book.

7.) Know your character’s motivation. Sarcasm, voice, and maturity of your character must be driven by a reason in your story to add depth. Provide a foundation for the “attitude” your character has and don’t forget a liberal dose of poignancy. A reader can tolerate a sarcastic teen if a scene ends with brutal honesty or catches the reader off guard with something gripping to make the whole thing come to a real point.  

8.) Beware of stereotypes—Avoid the cliché character (the geeky nerd, the pretty cheerleader, the dumb jock). This doesn’t only apply to YA.

9.) Can you relate to your storyteller? Peer pressure, dating, zits, kissing, sex, being an outsider, not fitting in—these are teen concerns that, as adults, we have to remind ourselves about. With each of these words, what pops into your head? Does it trigger a memory, good or bad? Sometimes the best scenes can come from these universal concerns that haven’t changed for decades. Filtered through your own experiences, a scene can carry more weight if it’s still relevant and relatable.

10.) What is your storyteller like emotionally? What effect can raging hormones do for your character? Is everything a drama? Not all teens are like this. Some are withdrawn in front of adults or in social situations. It’s important to ask yourself: What are they like around their friends and who are their friends? I would resist the urge to create a character based on a teen you know if it’s at the expense of your plot. Certain aspects or perceptions of “your teen” can influence your character, but your book is fiction. That’s why I recommend devising your plot first before you place the right teen in it.

11.) Who or what has influenced your storyteller most? Like in the movie, JUNO, the teen girl had a dry wit that sometimes referenced an older person’s humor. Not everything was “teen speak.” She was influenced by the adults in her life, using references she heard from her dad and step-mom. Her pop culture references were peppered into the humor of another generation. She still sounded young, but her dialogue appeal was more universal. Don’t be afraid to make up a word or phrase to suit your character’s world.

12.) What journey will your storyteller take in your book? Getting the voice right is only half the challenge. Your YA book must be about something—a plot, believable world building, and the reaction and journey of a real teen amidst it all.

13.) Don’t forget the imagery. Teen readers have great imaginations and can picture things in their heads like a movie. Give them something that triggers and engages their imaginations. Picture your book scenes on the big screen and write them that way, but don’t go overboard and slow your pace. Teens get it. Give them a glimpse and move on. They’ll roll with the imagery.

14.) Turn off your parent switch—If you’re an adult and a parent writing YA, you may find it difficult to turn off your mother or father switch, but you should consider it. Kids can read between the lines if you’re trying too hard to send them a “universal parental” message about conduct and behavior. Simply focus on your story and tap into what your teen experiences were—without censorship—and without the undertone of sending kids a special message. Your story will read as more honest, without an ulterior motive.

HERE is a link on a video about one teenager’s story from The Onion News (DISCLAIMER: I had nothing to do with making this video):

For Discussion:
1.) Any other writing tips to make your YA voice read as authentic?

2.) What books have you read where the teen voice seemed very real and please share why you thought so?

27 thoughts on “Key Essentials for An Authentic YA (Or Adult) Voice

  1. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton holds up for many of the reasons you mention.

    On cliches and stereotypes in YA, I’ve been thinking….are they cliches and stereotypes to the new readers? No, because they’re new readers. Cliches and stereotypes are based in reality. Why cut off a chunk of reality because older books and movies used them? So much of teen life (the bullies, the popular cliques, etc.) never changes. I’m wondering if the cliche advice ought to be, rather, just do it well.

    • I’m a big fan of Hinton. Glad you mentioned her book(s). Reading one of her books, ironically her first book for adults, inspired my first YA In the Arms of Stone Angels. I loved how she effortlessly unraveled her story through the use of flashbacks, yet kept her present day plot going. The title escapes me, but it had the word Harbor in it. The oddest book I’ve ever read, yet I loved it.

      I’ve thought about your take on cliches in YA and feel there is validity to your view that younger readers may have a different notion in what’s cliche, but editors and agents don’t. Plus you would not believe how many adults read YA, Jim. Writing YA is not just for 12-18 yr old readers. As a YA author, I have to reach a broader audience, which makes it more of a challenge, but my first loyalty is to young readers.

      Your advice to “doing it well” is appreciated. Well said.

  2. I am an adult and I love a good YA novel. Number six on this list is spot on and a real problem for some of the YA authors I’ve read.

    A couple of quips from a secondary character sounds realistic, but if the MC is constantly belittling another character, it stops being amusing and becomes uncomfortable. Humour is difficult to get across at the best of times on the page, and a teen’s sense of humour is twice as tricky.

    I admire YA authors to no end. They take me right back in time, no matter what generation or decade they have set their book. The good authors make it seem easy, make the book read easy.

    • Totally agree with you, Amanda. I love YA like you do. The cross genre approach to telling a YA story fits the way I like to write. And the imagination some YA authors have to spinning their tales, even down to how a contemporary social issue book is written, can blow me away as a reader. I’m thinking – Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY and anything by Halse-Anderson.

      I wish I had books like these to read when I was growing up. Maybe that’s why I’m devouring them now. Thanks. Amanda!

  3. My one YA novel is perhaps unusual in that a large percentage is written in first person POV, where the “person” is a mutant cat-mathematician called Mr. Paws. The other POVs are dispersed among the tweens, who try to solve the mystery of Mr. Paws, and a few of the grownups, if I remember correctly. I don’t know if these latter would be considered “deep”–never heard that one, and I put a good deal of effort in studying how to write YA.
    The book is a sci-fi mystery, by the way, that takes place on a futuristic version of the ISS. It’s not Harry Potter in space.

    • Hats off to you to do an animal. Robert Crais just released a new stand-alone with a dog character, a very touching story. Good luck with it.

      Your plot sounds more geared for middle grade, ages 10-12. especially if you are targeting tweens.

  4. Maggie Steifvater writes some really good YA complete with voice. Raven Boys was all third person because it had so many POVs to manage, and each character has a unique voice. The rich kid has a massive vocabulary, the poor kid is insecure, and the rebel kid constantly makes dirty jokes at everyone’s expense. You’d know who was talking even without dialogue tags.

    When you were a teen, you were the same person you are now, just with less life experience and freedom. And that chafes because you think you know enough to be treated like an adult and handle adult responsibility–even though you may not, really. Teens are people, not some weird animal. I think we forget this sometimes.

  5. Stephenie Meyer’s Bella was a great voice, of course, as was Collins’ Katniss. Another strong YA heroine with a great voice was Podkayne from Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars. On the Heinlein and strong young women topic, there’s also Kelly Jones, IIRC, from his short story “The Menace from Earth.” Another short story with a great YA voice is “None So Blind” from Joe Haldeman, with its lead character Cletus Jefferson.

    All of these YA voices are successful because they’re honest. In other words, they don’t try to do anything special with voice. They just have the voice that any person, any human, would have in that character’s situation: with parents, with a first love, with a vast and intimidating future in front of them. Just write for anyone in that situation, I think, and you’ll have the voice, without trying to add any specific YA-ness.

  6. Thanks for the video. I’ll be watching it all day. I’ll look for the Crais book with the dog character. One time I tried developing a character with a monkey body and a dog head. He smoked cigars, was a math wiz and was quite the randy little fellow. Always with the remarks and the loose hands. Obviously, this was a science fiction story that crashed somewhere in Alaska. I’m sure he’s out there… Hint: His name began with the letter B.

    Naw…it couldn’t be…or could it??

    • Crais’s book SUSPECT is already out there. It got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, I believe. Touching story about a dog that loses her beloved handler in Afganistan and suffers from PTSD. Maggie is later assigned to a broken cop suffering from the same condition after he loses his partner in a shootout. They both pursue the killers of his female partner, while trying to recover in their own ways.

      And Jim, if there is ever a place where a monkey-bodied dog could exist, it’s Alaska. Right, Basil? Other Alaskans following TKZ, please weigh in.

  7. HNobody does it better than John Green – nobody. “An Abundance of Katherines,” “Paper Towns,” “Will Grayson Will Grayson,” all brilliant. Those kids talk like my son does. I remember years ago those same road trips. Kids today want to know those kids in his stories, want to BE them. And your right, it’s not the words, not the proper slang. It’s the attitude, the way their decision making works. If you’re writing YA today, you have to read Green. He’s so damn good you fear you’ll never measure up. He’s the bar the rest of us have to aim at, and if we get close, we’ll have done a good job.
    This is a blog post I wrote about him last month:

    • OMG, yes, John Green is BRILLIANT. I read Looking For Alaska and became a lifetime fan. ANY author should read him. He touches kids as well as adult readers in a profound way. Green is magic and he speaks to everyone. Thx for the link, John.

  8. I don’t read much YA but I was struck, Jordan, by the fact that every one of your points could apply to adult crime fiction. Especially:

    Use first person or deep third POV. An emotional bond between protag and reader is essential!

    Don’t sweat vocabulary: One of my pet peeves is bad cop banter. Too many crime writers force the jargon thinking it creates authenticity. They also overdo sarcasm and irony. I have had it up to here with world-weary wise-cracking cops.

    Beware of stereotypes: Especially when writing about cops and investigators…

    And of course, knowing your character’s motivations inside and out is what makes your book.

    There are lessons to be learned from “the kids.”

  9. I’m so glad I read this post. For the first time, I’m about to start writing a book with two points of view. I had planned on doing one pov in first in one pov in close third, but doubted myself. Now I’m going to go for it! Thanks

    • Absolutely, Julie. See? You’re instincts were spot on. Sometimes I use tag lines of the name of the 1st POV character to make sure the reader follows without effort. Good luck with your book.

  10. Excellent post, Jordan! Love it. You nail all the essentials so well, especially the need for close POV and a natural voice. And I’d add, lots of attitude is always good, too, but as you point out, don’t make the protagonist obnoxious.

    I’ve always enjoyed YA and still edit and read it for pleasure, as well as some middle-grade fiction, and there are some great stories out for that age group, too.

    One book I highly recommend for age 12 to adult is Holes, by Louis Sachar. Excellent voice, with lots of great, quirky characters, and the story is so well-written, going back and forth in time, with a mystery that slowly gets unraveled. Lots of great stuff in there for adult readers that will go over a lot of kids’ heads. The movie (2003) was brilliant, too, with Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Henry Winkler and many more great characters.

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of ideas, Jordan!

  11. I dropped a YA series like a rock for a reason. They still have to be kids and have the limitations of kids. Even Catniss, couldn’t handle her adult emotions. In this book, there were no adults. A fire broke out in a building. When the teens got back, the younger kids had pulled hoses out of the fire station and hooked them up and were fighting the fire.

    I asked my fire chief if children, even under adrenaline, could do that. He burst out laughing. No. A fire nozzle will take and untrained adult right off their feet. It had already been agreed that if I ever rolled with them that I would stand by the truck and push “that button” if told and relay messages. I would not touch anything else.

    They are amazing, wondrous, adaptive people, but they are kids. There is a difference.


    • The talented Michelle Gagnon had shared the challenges of her first YA series and mentioned how tough it was to think like a kid and come up with kid-like solutions to their predicament. Not easy, but I love writing the innocence of YA and the excitement of “first time” experiences. My hardest challenge was keeping their minds working “in the moment,” without regard for consequences or giving them reflections/internalized thoughts that were adult sounding.

      In your example, a kid may have figured out a fun way to set off sprinklers in the building. rather than deal with those powerful fireman water hoses. Yeah, the pressure would’ve been hard to handle without several of them hanging on for dear life, but that would’ve been fun too.

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