Friday, July 11, 2014

Genre Questions: What is Contemporary Young Adult Fiction?

The genre basics

What is it?: A contemporary YA novel is a story about a teenage character that takes place in our current time and deals with the concerns of modern day life.

Word count: The number is very flexible, but I would aim for at least 60,000 words. Stand-alone books tend to have a higher word count, like between 75 and 80,000 words. Series might come in closer to 60,000 words.

Notable authors in the genre: John Green, Sarah Dessen, Ally Carter, Ann Brashares, Meg Cabot

Recommended reads: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen (others of hers are good as well, but that remains my favorite of hers), the Heist Society or Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series by Ann Brashares, The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot (both Sisterhood and Princess Diaries are tons better in book form than their silver screen adaptations), Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, There You'll Find Me by Jenny B. Jones

Your questions answered:

Are contemporaries usually more focused on the characters than the plot?

Many of them are, yes. This is completely my opinion (and you should know that character building is my favorite and that contemporary YA is my genre of choice, so biases abound) but I think contemporary YA novels have a greater need for a strong voice and great main character because it lacks the bells and whistles of other genres. No flying monkeys, no teleporting. 

But there are high concept contemporary YA novels that have plenty of plot going on and don't necessarily delve into characters as deeply as a story like The Fault In Our Stars or There You'll Find Me. From the list above, I would say Heist Society and the Gallagher Girls series are high concept contemporary YAs, along with  The Princess Diaries series and the Travelling Pants books.

 In a fantasy or sci-fi story, you would probably say the antagonist is a bad person. But in a contemporary, the antagonist isn't necessarily a bad person, they're just not "for" the main character. Is that accurate?:

Yes, I think that's true. In some contemporary YA series - the Gossip Girl books come to mind - the antagonist fluctuates depending on who our point of view character is as well as which book you're reading.

Is the antagonist usually a person, or are they sometimes a force? Which usually works better to write, in your opinion?

In general, I think a person works best. Now, the antagonist in The Fault In Our Stars is cancer and time (I'm assuming. No character is coming to mind.) and that book has done all right for itself, so what do I know?

Also, do contemporaries often have more than one antagonist? Because in the Ellie books, sometimes Lucy could be doing something that kept Ellie from achieving her goals, but sometimes it was Palmer or Chase...

The writer who asked this question is referring to The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet and I thought it was a really perceptive question. In contemporary fiction, the antagonist does often seem to be a bit more mercurial than other genres. In a lot of my books, it's the main character's best friend who takes on the role of antagonist.

But I think it's true for many great stories that there is more than one antagonist, even in other genres. Let's look at Harry Potter because it's easy. Voldemort is, of course, the big villain. But what about Snape? What about Draco? Dudley? They all take turns making Harry's life hard.

So yes, it's good to have a clear antagonist, but it's also good to have other characters working against your main character at times.

Does the antagonist always have to be the one causing the inciting incident (not just in contemporaries but in fiction in general)? Or could the inciting incident affect the antagonist and cause him/her to become an antagonist?

No, the antagonist can cause the inciting incident, but I've never heard an argument that they should. That's a personal choice about the story that you get to make on your own!


  1. Is contemporary always chick-flicks like the books on your recommended list?

    1. A chick-flick refers to a movie that appeals primarily to women, but yes, contemporaries frequently target girls because traditionally boys are more interested in sci-fi/fantasy than they are in contemporary novels. Business wise, it's smarter for publishers to acquire contemporary books that appeal to females.

      That being said, there are contemporaries that clearly target boys. John Green's books certainly appeal to males and females. I haven't read his others so didn't feel like I could put them on a list of recommended reads. Jill has recently talked to me about Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen but it hasn't made it up on my to-read list yet. She could probably chime in with a few other contemporaries that target male readers. Since I primarily WRITE for girls, that what' I primarily read too.

  2. Nice. Thanks for the post! Cleared up one or two things for me as well.

    I used to write and read almost exclusively contemporary, but honestly these days contemporary has kind of tended toward language-filled high school drama (dating being a big part), so I'm not reading it as much. Of course not all of it is, but I'm observing generally. It's always nice to find a book that leans away from that generalization. :)

    1. From what I've seen in the teen section of my local library and my school summer reading list, your general observations are depressingly accurate. A YA contemporary I recently read off the aforementioned list had a blah main character, unnecessary profanity, numerous scenes lacking conflict, mature content involving the lust, er, love interest who was hot and "perfect" but not much else, and of course the essential vilification of the hyper-organized mother and jealous best friend. (There were two great side characters, though, and the prose was mechanically sound, so it wasn't completely devoid of merit.)

      I don't actually mind romance and/or drama, if the romance is based on more than physical attraction, and the drama is necessary rather than melodrama. But those are pretty big 'if's. It irritates me that it's hard for people not to base their opinion of YA Contemporary off books such as the one described above, since then so many good books like Stephanie's or the ones on the recommended list that get passed up or shrugged off because they're though of as "just that fluff like [insert titles of rather poor reading choices here.]"

    2. Wow, I so agree. (And I appreciate the compliment.) In general, derogatory statements about entire genres bug me because they're just not true. I certainly understand if someone doesn't typically read Amish books or paranormal romance or contemporary YA, but genre bashing just isn't cool. Especially among writers.

    3. I know where Amanda is coming from. It is really hard to find a decent clean book nowadays. The ones I do find, I love. It's just like most things, though, when you find so much wrong, you end up hating/being disappointed with it all.

  3. Great post! And great timing, too. I'm dabbling in YA contemporary right now with a novelette/novella/however long it decides to be as one Camp NaNoWriMo projects. At least, I think it's YA contemporary, given the girl-finds-herself plot, modern setting, and the feeling of the thing, if you know what I mean, but it also involves aliens and parallel universes, so maybe not...It's a crazy story and probably forever unpublishable, but there's no such thing as wasted writing, right? ;)

    The non-evil antagonist is one of my favorite elements of YA contemporary. There's more of a sense of "everybody has goals, noble or otherwise, and sometimes those goals conflict" vs. the sort of evil, power-hungry dictators that slip into my work much more easily if I'm in a sci-fi or fantasy universe and can give them virtually unlimited power.

    1. Oh, I love how you phrased that part about how sometimes the goals conflict! What a great way to express it.

      And it sounds like your book might actually fall in the speculative category, just in the unique "world within our world" slot. Sounds like a fun project! Though after the beast of the book just completed, I'm struggling to imagine you writing a novella :)

  4. So helpful thank you Mrs. Morrill! One question: I read that novels set in the 1950s are still considered "contemporary" so would my WIP then still be YA contemporary or would it be YA historical?

    1. I think that once used to be true, but with the rise of books set in that time, I don't think it is anymore. It would be YA historical. I sometimes hear them referred to as Vintage Lit or Nostalgic Lit. If you're a Pinner, I would follow Carla Stewart:

  5. Great post (as always).
    I LOVE Ally Carter. She's probably my favorite YA author. :)