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How to Write Young Adult Fiction: 10 Tips from Legendary Author R.L. Stine

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

Perhaps more than anything, a novelist wants their books to be read by the largest audience possible. For this reason among others, many authors are turning their focus toward the burgeoning world of young adult fiction, often abbreviated as YA fiction.

YA novels primarily target children in their mid-to-late teens, but they also enjoy a sizeable following among adults.



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What Are the Characteristics of YA Fiction?

YA fiction is a genre of literature that bridges the gap between middle-grade fiction (which is typically targeted at middle schoolers) and novels written for adults. Some of its characteristics include:

  • Age-appropriate for readers approximately 14 and up
  • Primarily targeted at readers in high school, but there are YA readers in all age groups
  • Some YA novels, like the Harry Potter series, have been read by more adults than children.
  • Protagonists are almost always teenagers, although characters of all ages can be represented
  • Some culturally risque topics—including violence, sex, and death—may be present
  • Young adult novels are typically in the range of 60,000 to 100,000 words

What Are Some Common Genres of YA Fiction?

Nearly any genre that would make for a compelling adult novel can also make for good YA literature. The same principles that elevate all great novels—a strong point of view, emotional truth, a relatable main character, entertaining secondary characters, fluid use of language, and a story worth investing in—are what elevate YA books.

Teenage readers typically respond to a certain degree of edginess, which makes horror and thrillers quite possible within the world of YA. Some of the specific YA subgenres include:

  • Science fiction (particularly those concerning a dystopian future)
  • Horror
  • Coming of age stories
  • Fantasy
  • Sports novels
  • Thrillers
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R.L. Stine’s 10 Tips on Writing for Children and Young Adults

Robert Lawrence Stine, better known as R.L. Stine, is one of the most recognized authors of children’s horror novels alive today. He’s been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature” and has penned more than 300 books for kids aged 7 to 15 years old.

Below he offers a number of essential tips to keep in mind if you want to learn to start writing for children and young adults. Consider these principles when developing your own writing skills. Don’t forget to utilize creative writing prompts as often as possible. Professionals throughout the children’s publishing industry—from executives to editors to your fellow children’s book writers—keep these ideas in mind when they’re evaluating the work of new authors.

  1. Don’t worry about moral lessons. People think that everything written for children needs to have some sort of moral lesson. But it’s good to remember that some books can have entertainment as their goal. Adults have the freedom to read whatever they like. Why aren’t children sometimes afforded the privilege to read for kicks alone?
  2. Kids want to be entertained. Be aware of this double standard as you enter into the world of children’s literature. Kids want to be entertained, and you are competing with movies and technology in an unprecedented way. You need to write something they’ll want to read as much as watching something on their iPad. Approach your novel with this in mind, and you just might get a kid hooked on reading.
  3. Tune in to your target audience. In order to entertain, you have to be tuned in to your target age group. Middle-grade books are generally aimed at kids aged seven to 12 years old, and young adult or “YA” fiction is geared toward 11 to 15-year-olds. Interestingly enough, a huge number of adults now read YA novels—which is also something to keep in mind.
  4. Kids like to read about kids who are just slightly older than them. Most of the characters in Goosebumps novels are 12-year-olds, and the characters in Fear Street books are usually between 16 and 18.
  5. Hang out with kids as much as possible. If you have kids of your own, pay attention to what they and their friends find interesting. If you know teachers, talk to them. Ask your friends and family about their kids, and what they like to do. Volunteer at schools or other appropriate venues. Kids are smart, and they can immediately sense if something they’re reading is out of touch. Avoid specific pop culture references when possible.
  6. If you can pull it off, kids make the best fans. Children have a deep desire to live inside the books they read. Create a world they can’t wait to go back to and you’ve developed a captive audience that’s difficult to replicate among adults.
  7. Keep your target audience in mind when coming up with themes. When writing middle-grade fiction, you want to entertain young people with creepy, spooky stories—not terrify them entirely. No one in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series ever dies. There are no guns, and if there’s a ghost, it’s from a death that occurred long before the story took place. For the most part, real-life terror should be kept out of middle-grade horror. Readers need to be aware of that the monsters are fantasies, not reality. It’s possible to build much scarier narratives when kids feel confident that none of the frightening things could happen to them in real life.
  8. Keep your stories full of short, descriptive sentences. Kids don’t have to learn new words or struggle to get through a passage. There’s nothing to keep them from reading on to the next chapter. So be aware of your readers’ vocabulary level. The difference between a nine- and 15-year-old’s reading ability is often staggering, and you have to write in such a way that kids find your story both interesting and accessible.
  9. The opposite principle applies to YA horror. You want it to feel “real,” as you are writing for a much more sophisticated audience. R.L. Stine jokes that in Fear Street he “kills off a lot of teenagers.” In order to scare this age group, they have to believe that everything that’s happening is real.
  10. YA horror comes with its own set of rules. If you choose to pursue YA horror, you’ll need to make a decision about how far you are willing to go with language, violence, and sex. R.L. Stine’s YA material doesn’t have sex scenes (he jokes that there’s lots of “heavy kissing”). However, other authors are taking things further these days, and the standards are constantly changing. See what’s out there and determine which end of the spectrum you’d likely find yourself.


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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good children’s story takes time and patience. Horror-writing legend and author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series R.L. Stine has spent decades honing his craft. In R.L. Stine’s MasterClass on writing for young audiences, he explores how to conquer writer’s block, develop plots, and build nail-biting suspense that will thrill readers.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.