Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three Vital Keys for Writing a YA Novel



by Heather Burch, author of The Halflings series

Here are three of the most important things you need to write an awesome YA novel:

1. An unforgettable character
2. An impossible situation
3. A relentless threat

Why are these so important? They are the building blocks for great storytelling. Let’s break them down a little.


1. Unforgettable character.

Who are some of your all time favorite characters? Why? Let’s use Lord of the Rings as an example. Frodo. Unforgettable. Not because he’s short or has hairy feet. No, Frodo is unforgettable because he’s willing to dive into danger (terrified) but willing. Think of the scene where the fellowship is arguing about taking the ring to the Fires of Mount Doom. Here’s Frodo with all these great warriors and none are willing to do it. Yet he steps up and says, “I’ll take it. But I do not know the way.” I’ll take it shows Frodo’s amazing character. But I do not know the way, tells us how out of place he is in this quest. Hmm, this is a perfect intro to #2 (impossible situation.)

2. Impossible situation. 

Remember what Boromir says in that scene? He talks about reaching the Fires of Mount Doom. “The very air you breathe is toxic … Not with 10,000 men could you do this. It is folly.”

I believe I’d call this an impossible situation. Can’t breathe the air. 10,000 men can’t make it. But we have Frodo and Sam (another unforgettable character) willing to go. Think of your story and an impossible situation for your character. Is there one? If not, how can you incorporate one? Sometimes, it’s the situation that makes your character memorable. Impossible situations keep readers turning pages. Don’t be afraid to go beyond what you think you can write your character out of. Amp the tension. You’ll be surprised at how creative your characters can be. They will give you all kinds of ideas about how to get out of that impossible situation. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back and rewrite. But what if it does work?

3. Relentless threat.

Who or what is the relentless threat in your book? It can be as grand as the evil Lord Sauron or as small as a hateful math tutor. Whichever, they need to supply an endless amount of strife for your main character. In Halflings, Nikki is being hunted by hell-hounds and demons. That threat never ends. Even though there are only three or four attacks in book one, the threat is always there, just off the page. Think of ways you can amp the threat to your character. Maybe it’s the college entrance exam … she’s terrified (adds tension) plus she has to babysit for her neighbor the night before the exam when the neighbor’s husband is in a terrible car accident. Five hours before the exam, your character is frazzled, fried, and exhausted. See how one thing can take the tension higher? What can you do to torture your character? Remember, it has to be believable. We have to relate. But I bet you can find endless ways to create more threat for your main character.

Happy writing!


Heather Burch grew up in Branson, Missouri, where she learned to love fiction. She then married into a family of published novelists and quickly learned writing was her heart’s desire. When she’s not working on her latest book, Heather can be found watching a sunset at a beach near her home in Southern Florida, along with her sons Jake and Isaac, and husband, John---who is her hero in every way.

31 comments:

  1. Love how concise this post is! 3 steps. Those are the most important ones! I love reading (and writing) relentless threats...and also keeping them just off the page. It's even scarier if the writer doesn't "let it happen". They just have the threat coming...coming... Love that!

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    1. Me too! Keeping that tension strong makes for a very quick read!

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  2. I have a lot of trouble with this, partly because I'm terrified that if I get my characters in over their heads, I won't be able to get them out. Like in the example above: how on earth is the heroine going to pass her exam after a tough night of babysitting? It's almost impossible. Do you have any tips for coming up with ways to get characters out of impossible situations believably without making the reader feel cheated?
    ~ Amo Libros

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    1. The very best excercise is to jump in and write it knowing you dont think there's a way out. See what your characters come up with. They will surprise you!

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  3. Awesome Heather! I love that you used LOTR for you examples. :D I'll definitely apply these to my novel. Thanks a lot!

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  4. Thanks for posting this! It was very helpful :)

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    1. I have this written by my computer so I don't forget. :)

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  5. Hmm, only thing I think I need, would be an impossible situation.... Hmmm.

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    1. And thanks for the post, BTW!

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    2. Oh, I bet you'll come up with an impossible situation in no time!

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  6. Thank you for this! Excellent way of boiling down every single YA novel that I've ever read and straining out the three most important ingredients. And it can be applied to other genres, as well. :)

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    1. You're right Rachelle. It can certainly be used for any other genre.

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    1. Thanks! Now jump in and torture those characters! :()

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  8. I heard Heather tell this at a book signing and I thought it was brilliant! Thanks for sharing it here, Heather!

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    1. Thanks Jill! I think you're pretty brilliant!

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  9. Awesome post! Thanks so much!

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    1. You're welcome! Jump right in. See what happens.

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  10. I've tried quite a few times to write for YA, but I always seem to end up with a boring essay of information. This post has really helped! It've given me a far better view of what I want/need in my story. Thank you for the good read, Heather! ♥

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    1. Thank you, Jessica! That "essay" writing is just you getting to know your characters. It's a good thing. :) Now, throw them into action!

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  11. I struggle with finishing my stories. I write YA personally because i read it n i know what the popular books are, what books i like personally, and other reasons. But lately i havent finished any novels i try to write! Ive tried planning out everything before i write or i just sit down and start writing. I have ideas, but i never make it past chapter 3. Any suggestions? (sorry this is a little off topic. But i would reallyyyyy like some help! (;

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    1. I've had this exact problem, too. Sometimes the idea may not be big enough for a novel, but most of the time, I just get stuck in a rut at the story's beginning. Try throwing obstacles at your characters to overcome. Maybe develop the backstory of a secondary character a bit more and use it as a subplot. Or come up with some way to surprise the reader, like a quiet character standing up for what he believes in.

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    2. Thanks! Most of my problem is i dont even get to the action part. I have a big event in the beginning but dont know how to continue it. Thanks so much for your help!

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    3. This is a common problem. At around ch 3, it's time for a plot point. A plot point takes your story and spins it in a new direction. The first three chaps are your set up. You're setting up your characters life. Then suddenly something happens and uproots her. For instance, she has an accident that will change her life, her family moves, she witnesses a crime... see what I mean? The story must take on a new direction. Hope this helps.

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  12. Brilliant post, Heather. :) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Me too! And I'm so glad he ended up with Rosie Cotton with ribbons in her hair. :)

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