Monday, 15 April 2019

Pushing Boundaries in Young Adult Novels

Young adults are constantly trying to break but also to establish boundaries that adults set for them. Novels written for them need to reflect that.
However, because teachers, educationalists and librarians rejoice when young people read, even if it is material that has made the adult squirm, they will often accept the edgy material.
This material then is not edgy enough for the dopamine charged brain of the young adult – so the writers have to be come even edgier.        


The teachers’ and librarians’ dilemma

Teachers and librarians want young people to read. However, books are in fact works of art.
Yet, from Kindergarten right up to university level, students are taught to dissect books.
Why do we read?  Is there an expectation that we’ll learn something about life from books?
Books are used in schools:
         For the teaching of reading
         For checks on understanding through comprehension exercises
         For the teaching of grammar and English usage
         As models for children's own writing
         To provide supportive evidence in other subjects, e.g. History, Science. 
         For the teaching of English literature as bonuses in personal growth, e.g. 'not being the only one’ (PSHE)
         And 'understanding others’ (citizenship)
Note, the young adult has already had eight years of this in school.


Losing the art of reading for pleasure

Children often read in a fragmentary way at school because of the way English is taught. There are also other distractions for the growing teenager. Boys particularly go for factual reading. Young Adult literature may help to get young people to read for pleasure again.   


The circle

The writer produces something edgy and shocking. The reader enjoys this. The concerned adult – teacher, parent, librarian is pleased. The book is no longer “cool” because the adults like it. The next one must become even edgier.   



Adults- parents, teachers, librarians as well as publishers and booksellers still stand between the book and the reader, perhaps more so because the young adult is not reading outside of school.  So, GCSE and A-level books tend to be labelled as “young adult”.  


Pictures of the world

Margaret Meek and Jürgen Habermas recognise that we gain pictures of the world from what we read. Fantasy reorders the world. Note a preponderance of fantasy and science fiction in texts for young adults. The young adult is often seeking identity. 

Market forces

Imprints across the world have different definitions for the age range for young adults. Some start as young as 12 and some go on to 17.  On average, young adult is 14-17.  
Who defines the books?
     Young adults.


Some edgy topics that have now become almost commonplace

Young Adult texts often contain:
         Drug addiction
         Sexual abuse
         Extreme violence
         Near futures

Other ways of pushing boundaries

Interaction with Social Media 

Other types of books produced for young adults

  • Chicklet-lit which is like chick-lit but for younger reader. These contain a lot about make-up, boys, rebelling against parents and there is usually much humour.  However they are slightly more serious than the chick-lit produced for adult readers. There is also “Staglet-lit” that does the same for boys. A lot of this is produced in Canada.  Writers include: Cathy Hopkins, Louise Rennison, Judy Blume and  Christine Nöstlinger
  • Books that look like adult books.
  • Books that look like children’s books
  • Both of these become young adult because of the age of the characters.
  • Some graphic novels.
  • Some “hi-los”


Exercise on Pushing Boundaries

Make notes / write scenes on the following. 
1.      Look at you plot outline – is there anywhere where you could have a scene that pushes boundaries? Write that scene!
2.      Does your story lend itself to an experiment with form?
3.      Can you use experimental language?
4.      OR: is your novel more of a chicklet-lit / staglet-lit novel? Or like a children’s or adult novel?  Write a scene showing this.      

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Writing for Young Adults – The Bildungsroman Thread

“Bildungsroman, the term applied to novels of ‘education’ (in the widest sense), of which many of the best examples are German. Wieland’s Agathon (1765-6) is usually thought the first of the genre but the beta and most imitated was Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) … Wilhelm provides the model of the innocent, inexperienced, well-meaning but often foolish and erring, young man who sets out in life with either no aim in life or the wrong one. By a series of false starts and mistakes and with help from well-disposed friends he makes in the course of his experiences, he finally reaches maturity and finds his true profession.”

The big conclusion of the research I conducted for my PhD was that the young adult novel is always a Bildungsroman of sorts. More often than not it is to do with identity though it may be one particular aspect of identity that the young person uncovers.

Bildungsroman” literally means “novel of education”
Wilhelm Meister sets out, not knowing what he is doing, making many mistakes, and finally reaching maturity and finding his proper profession. 
The central character in most young adult novels sets out clumsily at first, making many mistakes, and finally succeeds in at least a small way, finding the right path through.
Many young people go through rites of passage at this time.

The story of adolescence traced though story theory:

      Ordinary World  (Christopher Vogler) Childhood
      Call to Adventure (Vladimir Propp)  Invitation to become adult through the onset of puberty
      Refusal of the Call (P) The adolescent sometimes wishes to continue to behave like a child and wants the comforts of childhood.
      Meeting with the Mentor (V) Supernatural Aid (Joseph Campbell Young people trust other authorities from the ones they knew in childhood i.e. parents and school. The trappings of teenage life – clothes, make-up, music, and possibly also drugs and alcohol give supernatural help.
      Crossing the First Threshold (P) The young person goes through puberty.
      The Belly of the Whale (C) Trials, Allies, Enemies (V) The Road of Trials (C) These are the ups and downs of becoming an adult, the changes in the brain and hormones going mad. Could the belly of the whale also be the teenager’s bedroom?
      The Meeting with the Goddess (C) This may by sexual seduction or a tendency to put role models put upon a pedestal – e.g.  footballers and pop stars.
      Woman as Temptress (C) Does this personify sexual experimentation?
      Approach to the Inmost Cave (V) Young adults go into a quiet space to find their true identity.
      Ordeal (V) Young adults face a final struggle to find their own truth.
      Atonement with the Father (C) The young adult is reconciled with the old way of life and the essence of the personality. What happened during childhood still counts.
      Apotheosis (C) A beautiful new adult emerges.
      The Ultimate Boon (C) Reward (V) The young person finds a role in life.
      Refusal of the Return (C) Despite recognizing the value of what has gone before the young person does not want to return to the beginning. This may be because they do not like the old way of life or it may be because they do not want to lose the idealized image they have of it.  
      The Magic Flight (C) Go back they must. Young people reach out to those roots with their new adult knowledge. This is often symbolized by an actual journey.
      Rescue from without (C) Adolescents cannot just stay in their inner cave. They must face the realities of the world.
      The Road Back (V) This represents a reconciliation between the new and old orders. Parents who had seemed incredibly stupid when one was fourteen, now that one is eighteen, seem not too bad after all. 
      Master of Two Worlds (C) Resurrection (V) The new adult takes up the new position in the world but still appreciates what has come before.
      Freedom to Live (C) Return with the Elixir (V) Self-esteem is improved so the young person is free to live. The elixir is self-knowledge.


Seeing this in a book you might read

         Look at the first scene and the last.
         Has the character grown?
         How have they changed?
         Note that many actors look at the first and the last scene of the script before they decide whether to take on a part. They want to know that the character has grown.
How does this happen in YA books you have read?

Writing task

Write a scene near the beginning of your novel and another towards the end to show how your main character has changed.


Sunday, 27 January 2019

Writing for Young Adults – Finding a story arc

Some people plan in detail. Others prefer to just start writing.  Below are common patterns of story. You may wish to use this to plan a story or to see if a finished story is working.


Basic four character theory

There are four basic characters: the hero, the friend, the enemy, and the mentor
The hero is usually human
The friend, enemy or the mentor may not be human
Story comes from the interaction and tension between them
The mentor usually disappears, leaving the hero to have the adventure on their own.       

Campbell, Propp, Vogler theory

Joseph Campbell surveyed lots of fairy stories and modern stories. Propp looked primarily at folk stories. Vogler adapted Campbell’s theory for the film industry. Vogler claims that his theory actually works slightly better of it is a little skewed.
According to these three the heroes go through the following hoops:
  • The Ordinary World (V) Hero leaves society (P) 
  • Call to adventure (V)
  • Refusal of the Call (C,V)
  • Meeting with the Mentor (V) Supernatural Aid (C) Meets a stranger (P)
  • Crossing the First Threshold (V)
  • The Belly of the Whale (V), Trials, Allies, Enemies (V), The Road of Trials, Arduous Journey (P) Capture by Strange Warriors (P)
  • The Meeting with the Goddess (C) Protection by ugly girl (P)
  • Woman as temptress (C) Appearance of the Queen, the beloved one (P)
  • The Approach to the Innermost Cave (V) Lovemaking (P)
  • Ordeal (V) 
  • Atonement with the Father ( C )
  • Apotheosis ( C )
  • The Ultimate Boon ( C ), Reward (V),  Resolution (P)
  • Refusal of the Return (C)
  • The Magical Flight (V)
  • Rescue from without ( C )
  • The Road Back (V)
  • Master of Two Worlds (C) Resurrection (V)
  • Freedom to Live (C) Return with the Elixir (V)

Booker’s seven basic plots

Christopher Booker recognises seven basic plots;
  1. Overcoming the Monster

Rags to Riches

  1. The Quest
  2. Voyage and Return
  3. Comedy
  4. Tragedy
  5. Rebirth
He gives us more detail:  

Overcoming the monster

The call
Initial success
Final Ordeal
Miraculous escape   

Rags to Riches

Initial wretchedness at home (call)
Out in the world – initial success
Central crisis
Independence and the final ordeal
Final union, completion and fulfilment

Quest- Odyssey

Problems encountered:
Deadly opposites
Journey to the underworld

Voyage and return

Arrival and frustration
Final ordeals

Voyage and return

Dream stage
Frustrations stage
Nightmare stage
Thrilling escape and return


Often contains:
  • Characters dressing up in disguise or swapping clothes 
  • Men dressing up as women  or vice versa
  • Secret assignations when the wrong person turns up
  • Characters hastily concealed in cupboards etc. 
Types of comedy:
  • Burlesque
  • Dark figure is hero themself
  • No dark figures


Act One - anticipation
Act Two – dream stage
Act Three – frustration stage
Act Four – nightmare stage  
Act Five – destruction stage 

Booker also recognises an overall story form:
Initial phase
Opening out
Severe – constriction
Dark power dominant
Reversal and liberation

McKee’s theory

Robert McKee’s Story was also written for the film industry but is no longer so popular there now.
It seems like a simplified version of the Campbell / Propp / Vogler theory and is in fact similar to Booker’s overarching template:
Inciting incident / hook 
Growing complexities (The longer the novel, the more there are. Usually there are at least three.)
If you want to study McKee’s book, I recommend reading the whole book, then reread Chapter 14.


Plots and sub-plots

Both I and Andrew Melrose’s present theories about the relationship between plot and sub plot.
Melrose: sub-plots are proportional to each other and to the main plot. These proportions form a pyramid.
Is there something of the Golden Segment in this?
My theory embraces Melrose’s but adds that each sub-plot is part of the main plot and the next biggest sub-plot.
We both say that the smallest sub-plot contains the “aha” moment. There is often some sort of epiphany for the hero.
In addition I say that this smallest sub-plot forms a bridge to the main plot.
See below how this pans out in Cinderella.
Main plot: Cinder’s life is transformed.
Sub-plot 1: she has a battle with the ugly step-sisters and her step-mother
Sub-plot 2: she wants to go to the ball but is prevented and then overcomes that prohibition.
Sub-plot 3: the fairy godmother helps her to get to the ball but imposes restrictions  
Sub-plot 4: she overcomes these restrictions to have a relationship with the prince
Sub-plot 5: the slipper is all important – it must fit Cinders’ foot (and note the obstacles that stand in the way of that! Even a sub-plot has a whole story arc)

Working with Archetypes

You can also put together characters based on the archetypes. See what happens:
         Good old man
         Innocent young girl
         Rival or “shadow”
         Other self 

Have a go

  1. Even if you don’t normally plan your stories in detail, have a go at planning one of the stories according to one of the templates provided above.
  2. Test out another of the theories in something you’re reading.
  3. Do you have a story that is not quite working? Test against a third theory. 

Some recommended reading