SMC: Writing YA Novels Kids Can’t Put Down

Storymaker notes continue, this time with Janette Rallison (who also writes as CJ Hill). A night of only 5 hours of sleep was catching up to me at this point, but I think I got the meat of what she was saying.


Remember that kids tend to read up. Write about issues that teens care about. Many of these include fitting in, growing up, and dating. But whatever the issue is, make it important to the teen. Keep the novel fast-moving. Don’t put in too much beautiful description or you’ll bore your audience. Often YA novels will end up being somewhere between 200 and 300 pages. Write it in a voice teens can relate to.


  1. Your MC should want something they don’t already have.
  2. Their goal should be something worthy.
  3. The best goals are important and urgent.
  4. Goals don’t always have to be achieved. (aka they realize something they want more along the way)
  5. All the main characters in your novel should have goals. (realistic support characters will be doing things for their own reasons and should)


  1. Don’t let your character wander around the story without motivation.
  2. Don’t make your character an idiot. (Seems obvious, but don’t have them doing things that your readers will scream is stupid at the book.)
  3. Characters should have both internal and external motivation and goals.

Revenge could have been a great motivation for Obi-wan in Eps 2 & 3. Too bad they killed off Darth Maul in the same scene…


  1. Conflict is two dogs & one bone. (They want something someone else wants just as badly).
  2. Conflict is not the same as arguing.
  3. Any conflict that can be cleared up with a 2 minute frank conversation between characters is not a conflict.
  4. Your characters should come to every scene with a goal and conflict.


Have a strong antagonist, but realize that the antagonist doesn’t always have to be a villain. And when it comes to YA novels, you can’t have an adult solve the teen’s problem. That’s often why you’ll find YA stories about orphans (Harry Potter) or who have useless parent(s) (Hunger Games).

The reader needs to know the dire consequences that will befall the main character if he/she does not reach his/her goal. Otherwise they won’t feel the tension in what they’re reading and may disengage.

And as Dwight Swain says each story should have a problem, character, goal, antagonist, and disaster. Write down each of these categories and make sure you can define each of these when it comes to your novel.

Any tips you would add? Have you found places where you were ruining motivation when you could have been using it? What do you do to make sure you give your characters motivation and conflict in every scene?

One more thing on ruining motivation. In earlier iterations of my novel, I had a main character who started as a great conflicting force for my MC that essentially disappeared for the rest of the book after being in the first few chapters. It took me several rewrites to realize I was killing some excellent motivation for my MC. Now that character doesn’t disappear and I think things are much improved. Scour your own novel and make sure you’re not killing off good conflict before it comes to grand fruition.

24 thoughts on “SMC: Writing YA Novels Kids Can’t Put Down

  1. First, Darth Maul is one of the few people in cinema to kill Liam Neeson, which feels wrong.

    I wonder about the 200-300 page ‘rule’ that I hear about in regards to YA novels. I remember reading 300-400 page books and even some 500 pagers when I was in the YA bracket. Does this mean that I was a stronger reader or that the YA category has watered down over the years to accommodate lower attention spans?

    I think an idiot hero can be done in certain aspects. Countering it with an open friendliness and desire to help can make them more enjoyable for a young reader. I might be thinking more of the ‘hero’ that is always causing trouble and making mistakes until the very end where they rise up to the occasion. With writing anything is possible, but I think there is a way to utilize the ‘idiot hero’. You just have to be careful and make them grow out of it.

  2. I’m glad she mentioned changing motivations; not every protagonist understands herself and what she wants early on, or she might think one thing is important and then change her mind when something bigger comes along. But there always has to be something that motivates her, even before the “big thing” comes along.

    As for ruining motivation, that’s an interesting concept. I have a conflict early in a story that seems to be taken care of (except for lingering doubt and internal conflict), but comes back to bite the protagonist in the arse in the sequel. Given that there are already two motivating forces for the protagonist (one thing she wants, one she wants to get away from), I don’t feel too badly about putting that one on hold. Just can’t let the reader forget about it along the way. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sounds like you’re not “ruining motivation” in the sense of killing Darth Maul off. I think another way she could have said it is don’t let things climax too early and then resolve them. I try to question everything and say if this were to be resolved later would it be more powerful? Would anything change? I realized I was doing it with one of my characters, cutting them out of the story too early. Bringing them back in changed a lot (it’s oddly like knowing about several parallel universes where you realize the choices that could have taken things in a different direction).

      I still think Doc Brown’s explanation of parallel/alternative realities is the best. Back to the Future works as the best example for explaining time travel much like Harry Potter works as the best example for explaining everything.

      Oooh, which one does it better explaining time travel? Harry Potter or BTTF? Yikes, this is one I’m going to have to ponder on. Let the geekery begin.

  3. These are great pointers, and it’s really nice to have concrete information with which to arm myself as I go back through my book in the editing cycle.

    I *think* I’m doing this, but for my characters, the conflict/goal shifts – it ultimately leads to one overarching goal but real underlying threat isn’t discovered until 1/4 of the way in.

    Either way, I love having the knowledge of how to change it to make it better. Thank you.

  4. “Any conflict that can be cleared up with a 2 minute frank conversation between characters is not a conflict.”
    I know I tend to throw in things, and then resolve it too quickly. Usually, I find these problems early on and eliminate them.
    Also, I find it frustrating when books or movies have the “If the characters would just talk to each other for three minutes, this wouldn’t be a problem” as a main conflict.

    • That’s like all of Korean drama, lol. I think that’s the problem, it gets too soapy. Or there at least has to be a legitimate reason they can’t talk to each other.

      I’m sure I probably let my characters off the hook too easy with my conflicts sometimes. That’s what the rewrites are for. Hooray rewrites!

  5. More great tips, Jae! Thanks.

    By the way, I’m so looking forward to reading more about the your novel and the progress your making with it. You are obviously putting in lots of hard work and have the talent. I can’t wait to read it!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks Arlene! I hope the hard work is paying off in positive ways. I just finished off this major editing session this morning. I’m going to search for deadwood words, apply some feedback I got from a friend, and then it’s off to the agent so my anxiety level can be back up to panic levels. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Hehe: “Donโ€™t make your character an idiot.” Many a film I have screamed at the character for doing stupid things. At least book have the right to be more realistic!
    I think one of the reasons I prefer writing NA and up to YA is because my characters often have to follow the rules of their parents. Orphans tend to be overdone as well.
    The last point reminds me that I’ve been looking at synopsis structure recently, and one I’ve seen is: Opening set up, Initial challenge, Reaction or new scenario, Mini Crisis, Edge of Adventure, Point of no return, Complications, Despair, Transformation, Climax, Resolution. I find this really helpful.

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