Finding Strong Ideas for Teen Fiction

How can you find and write convincingly about ideas that teenagers will enjoy? Find out from award-winning YA novelist K.L. Going how to succeed at writing for this burgeoning genre.
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Finding the right idea is the key to beginning your YA novel.

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So where, exactly, do ideas come from? How can you find ideas that teenagers will enjoy? The answer to this question is both simple and complex.

Ideas for your teen novel can come from anywhere. That’s the simple answer. But the real question is: Where do good ideas come from? How can you tell the difference between an idea that will sizzle and one that will never heat up? Are there unique sources for ideas that will appeal to the teen marketplace?

Whether you loved or hated gym class in school, this version of gym will be nothing like what you were used to. In this gym class, the muscle we’ll be working on is your brain. Priming your creative muscle is hard work, so let’s get some blood flowing with a few mental calisthenics.

A good workout starts out slow, so let’s begin with the easy stuff. Where can you find ideas for your novel? Since you’re writing for teens are you limited to MTV, movies, TV, and the mall?

Absolutely not. 

Ideas can come from so many places they’d be impossible to count, and finding ideas for a teen novel is no different than finding ideas for an adult novel. Sure, you might want to focus more on school and less on the workplace, but remember that teens live in the exact same world that adults live in, and that world is rich with story potential.

In fact, our world is overflowing with stories. Whether they come in the form of movies, books, TV, or song lyrics, there are stories swirling around us all the time. Obviously we can’t use them in the exact same forms that we find them, but we can allow them to inspire us.

Music & Movies

Many authors are inspired by music, and I include myself in that group. Listening to music makes me want to capture the same raw emotion I hear through the lyrics and melody, only in a different form. When I find myself hitting a creative wall, I put on a good CD and let my mind wander. Do you have to listen to the same music that’s popular with teens? At times that might be helpful, but generally the idea is for you to be inspired, so it’s more important that the music move you, rather than reflecting your target audience.

There are also times when a director’s commentary on a DVD has sparked an idea for a book. Learning about the creative process other artists go through, even if they aren’t in the same field, can inspire you to look at your own work from a different angle. Hearing how a screenwriter or director stepped outside of the conventional forms found in film can prompt you to step out of the creative box that might be holding you back. Again, you need not confine yourself to teen movies, but in this case, listening to how these artists connect to their teen audiences just might inspire you to connect with yours.

Books & Magazines
I’ve also been inspired by other books. Reading a great book can get me so excited that suddenly my mind is overflowing with ideas. Where once my imaginative muscles might have felt stiff and sore, after reading a great book, they’re ready to work out. It’s the literary equivalent of a cup of coffee or a protein bar. Great books generate enthusiasm, and enthusiasm sparks ideas. Read all kinds of books, and allow them to get you excited. Excitement works like a furnace for ideas, or at least idea receptivity. When you’re excited, your mind opens to every possible form an idea might take. You look at the world around you in a new way, and this is exactly what it takes to find great stories.

If you’re looking for ideas, watch the world around you and take note of interesting people, places, or events. Read books, newspapers, and magazines. Reality can be a wonderful source for fiction. The very first YA novel I ever attempted was inspired by a true story in Newsweek about teens in a small town who started a gay/straight student alliance. The teens captured my imagination, and I wanted to know more about their lives: What had brought them to that point, and what would happen to them afterwards? I explored those possibilities as I wrote my book (using fictional characters and plot, of course). Although that novel didn’t sell, it’s still a story I’m proud of. It’s a 250-page novel that wouldn’t have existed without that one-page article.

Seek Conflict and Tension
When you watch the world around you, keep an eye out for conflict and tension. Part of what appealed to me about that particular news story was that the teens were meeting with resistance from the school board and people in their town. This intrigued me. I wanted to know how they would handle the opposition and how the situation would get resolved. Conflict makes for great stories, and although we wish it didn’t exist, it’s everywhere.

When you read about conflict, see it on TV, or even if you witness it firsthand, ask yourself if there’s a book somewhere in there that you’d be interested in writing. Does the real-life situation make you curious, angry, sad, or joyful enough that you’d want to capture those same emotions in a novel?

Patricia McCormick did a fabulous job of turning conflict into a powerful, emotional story with her novel Sold, which is about a girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution. A chance meeting with a photographer working undercover brought the issue of girls in brothels to McCormick’s attention. She describes on her Web site how she knew immediately that she wanted to try and tell this story from a single girl’s point of view. The resulting book received a National Book Award nomination.

What’s happening in the world that’s of interest to you? What do you think would interest teens? Ask yourself how a teenager might fit into a story that catches your eye. One of the unique aspects of writing for young adults is that the teenage point of view is seldom portrayed in the media when it comes to world events. We most often hear from adults, and occasionally someone might interview a small child, but generally teens are overlooked. When we take the time to explore their view of the world, the results are almost always fascinating.

Excerpted from Writing & Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going (Writer's Digest Books, 2008).

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