Movie franchises based off of young adult novels have been huge money makers for Hollywood over the last decade. Harry Potter was one of the first big franchises to cash in on the young adult audience (to the tune of 7.7 billion), and other teen-centric franchises like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent followed, also making piles of money. Here’s a guide on how to write a young adult novel of your own that will be instantly ready for a big screen expanded trilogy and will make you crazy rich:
Parents: The deader the better!
Let’s start with who’s not in your story: Parents. At minimum, one of the parents of your main character needs to be dead (or just missing if you don’t have the stones to kill them off). Ideally, both parents are dead. Why? Because parents are the worst, for starters. But also, a stable home life and adequate supervision will keep your character from doing awesome stuff, like sneaking away to make out with vampires, going hunting with cute boys in the restricted area, or repeatedly going into parts of an old castle where giant snakes live. Regardless of where you want to go with your story, parents are just going to prevent you from getting there. Also, the loss of one or more parents has the added bonus of giving your character weapons-grade levels of angst. So, figure out how to write those guardian-types out of the story immediately. You don’t need them.
Special in a way nobody else understands
Good, with that out of the way we can move on to your main character. The key here is that your main character has a special kind of specialness that makes them special (picking up on the theme?). The young adult audience as a whole is searching for self-identity, and they would be bummed out to read a book that might suggest that their identity is not special. So your book needs to make the reader ask themselves questions like:
Am I the only one who could lead the rebellion?
Has this vampire spent centuries on earth looking for a high schooler just like me?
Am I a freaking wizard but just don’t know it yet?!
If you can get your audience to entertain these thoughts then you’ve won. They will read the next 6 books in the series (even if you start phoning it in on the 3rd!).
Rules: Ugh! Why!?
Do you know what special kids hate? Rules. Ugh. The worst. I mean, your character is basically an adult, why can’t they make their own awful decisions? You will need to set up some arbitrary rules for the world your character lives in for them to rebel against. Here are some recent examples:
Don’t date vampires.
You have to kill all these other kids in this giant arena.
You have to be a hippie farmer.
You have to run through this maze filled with robot bug things.
Teens hate rules, and your character will too. But through their inherent specialness they will break/change the system!
Boys: Two please!
This is our most critical tip: If your main character is female, you will need not one, but two romantic interests for her. They will both need to be dreamy, obviously, but in different and complimentary ways. A good formula is one hot guy who is a best friend-type, and one hot guy who is a bad boy-type. Although, The Hunger Games proved that having a hot guy best friend type and a whining little average looking guy can work as well. You’ve got some options. Both will need to share special and unique experiences with your heroine. The key is to make sure your main character is torn between the two and laments making any type of decision for a minimum of 600 pages.
Additional note: If your main character is a boy you are not allowed to have two female love interests for him to fool around with. Somehow, as a society, we have decided that young adult novels will be the only place where we slut shame boys and not girls.
Here’s a fun tip: never explicitly mention a few of your character’s racial identities when you describe them in your writing. Then, when your book is made into a movie, ignorant people can freak out when that character has a different skin tone than what they pictured!
The future needs to suck
For some reason, teens really relate to stories about life in a dystopian future. This is great news for you as an author because the dystopian future can be full of the arbitrary rules you need for your character to rebel against! So go ahead and have fun dreaming up the worst possible outcome for the human race as a backdrop for your tale! Possible ideas include:
A future where your character has to kiss cute boys to earn food for her family.
A future where your character must navigate a deadly obstacle course for the right to choose the cute boy she wants to be with.
A future where, eh, you get the picture.
The real mystery is why teens relate so strongly to stories about an awful futuristic world. It’s weird, because our world today has so few problems. All we have to worry about is climate change, and nuclear proliferation, and fundamentalist terrorism, and the threat of economic collapse, and dwindling supplies of fresh water, and antibiotic resistant super bugs… oh I get it now.
Frank Anderson and collaborator Max Wolter (this article) write for The Renaissance Fan.