Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writing YA - Themes

Wait, weren’t we just talking about series writing? Welcome to my right brain.  (Hey, I never said I did these posts in order!  If you want order, order the workbooks.)

No, actually, this post today is because I am teaching a Screenwriting Tricks workshop at the RWA National Conference on Wednesday, and the focus is YA, so this is a good way to get my thoughts in order while letting you all benefit from the conference by osmosis. Plus, switching topics mid-stream is an excellent way for me to demonstrate that writing series, or writing YA, or writing YA series, or writing anything, will all benefit from exactly the same starting point: your personal Top Ten List. 

Now first, YA isn’t a genre.  It’s an umbrella for ALL genres. So the structure patterns for whatever genre you’re writing in apply just as completely to a YA book in that genre (or subgenre, or cross-genre) as they do to any adult book in the genre. 

So when you’re sitting down with your new YA project to brainstorm, and making your Top Ten movie list (a list of movies and books that are similar in genre and storyline to your own project), it is often more useful to look at adult movies (I mean, not ADULT adult, but you know, adult) and books in the genre than it is to look at teen movies, simply because there are more, and usually better, adult movies out there with the structural patterns you’re likely to want to study and learn from.  (If you need more clarification about what I'm talking about: What KIND of Story is It?)

The only real difference in a YA book is the age of the hero/ine and main characters, although there are some specific themes, elements and techniques that are very popular in YA, and themes are what I wanted to start off with today.

-- YA is very often written in first person – or a very close third.  You are in the thoughts and skin of your protagonist.

-- There is very often a love triangle.  Of course this is a popular trope in adult fiction, too – it creates conflict and provides a fantasy sexual or romantic experience that a lot of readers are looking for. But it’s especially prevalent in YA, not just because people are copying Twilight and The Hunger Games, but because adolescence is hopefully a time for experimenting, including trying out who to love.

-- There is often a rebellion against entrenched adult values and political systems.  The Hunger Games is a prime example, of course.  It’s the teenagers who have to make moral choices and take moral actions against a corrupt or broken or even horrific adult system.  This is nothing new AT ALL, it was the spirit that defined the sixties and is pretty much is the major theme of adolescence.  And this is why, I think, dystopian fiction is so popular with YA readers.  The genre by its very nature says that the system is broken and challenges the characters  - and the readers – to fix it.  I love that about dystopian!  Makes my Berkeley heart proud.

-- The characters often have special powers, or superpowers.  This is another theme of the teen age.  Because it is the absolute truth – we all DO have superpowers.  We are all infinitely powerful, we just need to remember we are.  As Marianne Williamson wrote in A Return to Love (a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, who used it in his 1994 inauguration speech):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Deepak Chopra says more succinctly, in a way that sums up the exhilaration of the Harry Potter series: “We are all wizards and witches.”  Kids KNOW that. Adults all too often forget it and spend a lifetime trying to remember.

-- There is commonly a theme of the changeling child.   A classic childhood fantasy:  “These aren’t my REAL parents.  I’m actually a princ/ess in disguise!”  Again, Harry Potter!

-- The changeling child is also an outsider, and the outsider theme is hugely popular in YA. Kids ALWAYS feel like freaks, and can easily relate to being vampires, shapeshifters, space aliens. New powers manifesting in embarrassing ways? You don't have to be Freud to get where that's coming from.

-- The King Arthur theme: that a seemingly ordinary person is destined for greatness.  The Hunger Games, How to Train Your Dragon, Harry Potter.  Cinterella is another one of these, of course.

So yes,  YA themes tend to be extravagantly idealistic and empowering.  YA is also often paranormal and girl-driven. Now, this could be attributed to the influence of Buffy, and Twilight, and you may have theories of your own about it, which I’d love to hear. Personally I think that the paranormal wave was in great part a reaction to the militaristic focus of the post-9/11 government — the psychic, intuitive, feminine paranormal was a reaction to and rebellion against the patriarchal domination of those war years.  

- There’s another very common formula to YA: stories that are revisionings of classic literature or fairy tales or fiction or plays,  only with teenage leads.

- And - maybe it's not exactly a theme, but school is almost always a setting, either a physical school or some kind of training that's the equivalent of school, and the issues of school and learning are always present.

But I know there are a lot of YA writers out there, so I’d like to hear some of the common themes YOU see in YA. And also as always, I’m very interested in hearing people’s Top Ten lists. I need some good examples!

- Alex 

Related posts:

The Dark Side of YA


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M. Saint-Germain said...

Hi Alex,
Susanne Lakin told me about your blog. Loved this post and the quote rocked! I've written a few YA novels (none sold yet) that were paranormal suspense. Very fun to write. I read the Hunger Games but hated the premise at first and then I thought, wait a minute, I couldn't put the book down, I need to study this and why it worked. I dissected it at my blog and called it Book/Movie Biology. I'm going to read the second in the series soon. I hope to come back and read more here. I like your sense of humor, your writing voice. Thanks,
Michelle, Random Writing Rants

Christina Mercer said...

Great Post! And I love Marianne Williamson :-) I'm linking this to my blog post.

For me, young adult differs from adult fiction in that the "voice" is different--more youth-driven. Not just the use of slang or "imitating" a teen, but seeing the world from a teen's eyes.

Some young adult themes are broken families, peer pressure, and all those oh-so-important "Firsts" (first love, first cigarette, first time behind the wheel). And whatever the "First", it's usually intense.

Jolene Navarro said...

I was talking to my 19 yr old daughter and she said her favorite had been Maximum Ride, Patterson. They started out cool but got stupid at the end. Not sure if she out grew them or it's just hard to maintain a series. She has always and still does love the Narnia books
She also like twilight and the Uglies but lost interest.
I subbed for a middle school art teacher for four weeks. She taught one class of Creative Writing.
By the end of week one I had to call her before running, screaming to the school counselor. Every writing prompt or story had to do with suicide, killing, abuse or abandonment. Their heroes had to face pure evil alone without any friends or family. She laughed and said she forgot to warn me to limit a topic. They can write about what ever but only once every three weeks.
That first week one girl had given my hope. Struggling (alone of course) to free her self from a self imposed prison, tightly wrapped in silk. She finally breaks free and discovers she can fly. She writes about the beauty of her new wings the world around her, is the same but so different with her new perspective. She dances and laughs ubtil without any warning her colors become splattered on the clear windshield splatteredand of a monster eighteen wheeler. Ha Their brains seem hard wired for tragedy.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Michelle! Hunger Games isn't an easy premise. It seems very exploitive, but the political message is profound.

I'm going to go further into HG, here - we did an analysis of it in the workshop I did at RWA yesterday and it really is a good one to demonstrate how structure works.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Christina, yes, voice is key in YA.

Great point about the "firsts"! You're totally right.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, Jolene, that's fascinating about the topics in the middle school writing class.

Of course >I< was hardwired for tragedy at that age, but I really thought it was just me.

The hormones can't help, honestly...

Anonymous said...

YA themes for me that I enjoy writing about deal with Trust at their core. Trust in self, your abilities, your judgment, and trusting others around you. That theme can move through many different scenarios from divorce to relocating to a new school to recovering from a betrayal or even rebuilding trust after a small slight by friend/family.