I think that one of the strong characteristics of teen fiction, as opposed to adult fiction, is that it is plot-driven. Middle grade fiction is too, but teen fiction offers the author the opportunity to bring in all kinds of adventure and excitement and angst that isn’t appropriate for a younger readership. I feel like Young Adult fiction offers me the best of both worlds as a writer – I can write about mature themes and at the same time I can tell a good story.
But I don’t come up with a plot idea out of the blue. I find that my plot-driven fiction is really character-driven. What starts me off is a good character. Once I get the idea for the hero (or sometimes the anti-hero) of the book, that person usually sets the plot going. In The Sunbird, Telemakos’s aptitude for sneakiness gets him recruited as a child spy. In Code Name Verity, Maddie’s interest in mechanics leads her into aviation, and her level-headed reliability and discretion draws the interest of the Special Operations Executive.
Being plot-driven, there’s not a lot of room for what John Steinbeck calls ‘Hooptedoodle’ in YA fiction. Hooptedoodle is a foray into purple prose. It can be a linking passage between action scenes, or a description of landscape to set the scene, or maybe just the author waxing lyrical and enjoying the sound of his or her own voice. I am a very literary writer and I like writing hooptedoodle. I have to be tricky about working it in, because the general assumption is: 1) it does nothing for plot, and 2) teens get bored quickly if your writing is too flowery.
I think that both these assumptions are incorrect. I think that YA readers, who are still forming their own literary tastes and styles, can be just as hungry for mature and beautiful writing as they are for action. Certainly it was during my own teenage years that I read and wrote the most poetry. If anything, my ‘juvenilia’ was more florid than anything I’ve written since. Obviously I am a sample population of One, but that also means that in an ideal world I’m writing for myself – I’m writing what I would have liked to read as a teen – and indeed, what I still like to read.
As for furthering the plot, well, that’s just a matter of your skill as a writer. The first half of Code Name Verity is really one lengthy coded message, all of which comes clear in the second half of the book, and a lot of the ‘hooptedoodle’ in Part 1 is there on purpose to disguise the message. There are other important things Verity’s lyrical passages do: they are an outlet for her despair (she is a prisoner of the Gestapo as she tells her story), they describe her past, they help to show her commitment and loyalty, and they help her survive – so when Verity (or me, as the author) describes the landscape of her childhood, the passage is doing any number of things to help define the characters and to set up the plot.
So there’s my recipe for a great teen read – tight plot, engaging characters and a dash of hooptedoodle!
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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