The following articles about young-adult fiction are available on this page.
by Mike Klaassen
WHAT DO THE FOLLOWING NOVELS HAVE IN COMMON?
Even though these five novels vary significantly, they have one large common denominator: each is
a great story that adolescent boys can enjoy. Great stories share common traits, and those traits coincide with the five fundamental elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, theme, and style).
CHARACTER. According to Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, great stories “ . . . involve characters whom you cannot forget. . . they are larger than life . . . they act, speak, and think in ways
you or I . . . do not.” Each of these five novels has at least one unforgettable character. In young-adult novels, that often means characters who are intriguing and complicated; they grow or mature; they emerge from the story as changed people.
In four of the five novels listed above, the protagonist is a boy. That’s not a coincidence. Just as girls are more likely to identify with a female character, boys are more likely to enjoy a male protagonist. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows that an intriguing female character can also hold a guy’s reading attention.
PLOT. The characters must do something important. According to Maass, in great novels “what happens to the characters in the course of the story is unusual, dramatic, and meaningful. A great story involves great events.”
In the novels listed above, the respective protagonist:
SETTING. Characters don’t perform on an empty stage. As outlined by Maass, your favorite novels
“probably . . . whisked you into their worlds, transported you to other times or places, and held you captive there.” That means setting is more than just a stage. It incorporates a milieu, a broader sense of culture and environment, so integrated into the story that setting almost becomes another character.
In the novels listed above, the settings include:
THEME. A great novel is more than just entertainment. According to Maass, another aspect of great stories is that they alter the reader’s way of seeing the world. Ideally, a great young-adult novel leaves the reader better able to cope with whatever real-world challenges he may face. In each of the novels
listed above, a young protagonist overcomes incredible obstacles and emerges as a stronger, wiser person.
STYLE. Style is the “how” of fiction, reflecting a myriad of choices made by the author, from individual word choice to establishing the tone. Although the novels listed above differ significantly in various aspects of style, they share one overall trait: they are each told in an accessible, straight-forward style.
In capsule form, the cornerstones of a great novel for young-adult males are:
When these traits are combined into one story, the reader is hooked from the beginning, keeps turning the pages, and at the end is left hungry for more.
Michael John Klaassen
by Mike Klaassen
Violence in children’s fiction isn’t new. Just think about the old fairy tales. Two of the little pigs were eaten before the third pig boiled the Big Bad Wolf alive. After a wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, a hunter sliced the wolf open to let them out. A wolf eventually ate the boy who cried wolf.
More recent fiction also includes plenty of violence. The young protagonist in Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, hunts and kills to survive. The choirboys of Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, hunt wild boars, and then each other. All of this is a little tame by today’s standards, where it seems no subject is absolutely taboo. For example, in The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, a girl narrates a story in which she is raped and murdered. That subject is as touchy as it gets, but the novel is well regarded.
How much, if any, violence is appropriate in young-adult fiction today? At the risk of being roasted alive on a virtual bonfire, the short answer to that question is that it depends on how it’s presented. Violence in young-adult fiction is a lot like working with fire. Properly handled, fire can be a vital resource. Misused or out of control, it can be terribly destructive.
When I started writing young-adult novels, I decided my target market would be reluctant readers, especially teenage boys. To get my readers’ attention and to hold it, I intended to use lots of action. I would put my characters in dangerous, scary, and potentially violent situations. But how much is too much? And does violence in fiction foster violence in real-life behavior?
Our generation isn’t even close to being the first to wrestle with this issue. Daniel Chandler, of the University of Wales, in “Television Violence and Children’s Behavior,” states “Concern about children and popular media has a long history. Plato proposed to ban poets from his ideal republic, because he feared that their stories about immoral behavior would corrupt young minds.”
Reasonable people may disagree on this subject. Some have little or no tolerance for violence in young-adult fiction because they believe that it encourages violent behavior in real life. Others may feel that violence in fiction may be overly traumatic for young readers.
On the other hand, some believe that violent fictional situations create opportunities for young readers to experience traumatic situations without actually facing real danger themselves, just as my brothers and I did when we played Cowboys & Indians. Potential benefits include learning skills for problem solving, conflict resolution, self-defense, survival, and fear management. As Chandler’s article indicates, research on the subject isn’t conclusive, either way.
As I see it, the challenge is to gain and hold the reader’s attention, but also to present the subject in a manner that doesn’t trivialize serious subjects or encourage destructive behavior. While developing my novels, I considered dozens of situations in which young characters experienced or committed violence. For example, I developed scenarios in which one teenage character or another:
First reactions to this list might be that there’s no excuse for any of them. But the context in which the situation is presented can make a huge difference. In each of the situations listed above, questions need to be asked before reaching a conclusion. For example:
Although I discarded many other violent situations during the process of writing my novels, each of the situations listed above were retained, and fully dramatized, as part of the stories.
As with fire, violence in fiction has the potential to be destructive, but used appropriately, it can serve the story and the reader well. I feel I have a responsibility to make sure it is appropriate within the context in which the violence occurs. Part of me would like clear-cut guidelines as to when violence in teen fiction is appropriate and when it isn’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. It’s a judgment call, to be handled case by case.
Michael John Klaassen
The article above is an example of dozens presented in Mike Klaassen's free monthly ezine, For Fiction Writers. Subscribe today.
by Mike Klaassen
Writers make lots of decisions, and writers of young-adult fiction are faced with choices regarding profanity. Like it or not, the use of profanity is an effective device for portraying emotion in fiction, adding realism to dialogue and to a character’s introspection. So how do writers balance the desire for authenticity with the need to be responsible to young readers? The choices come down to:
LIBERAL USE OF PROFANITY
In some ways, this is the easiest of the choices. Rather than agonize about the use of foul language in novels, writers may just use it wherever it seems natural. After all, nearly everyone has heard and read foul language before, and it’s been decades since it’s been taboo in fiction.
On the other hand, there are serious drawbacks to the liberal use of profanity. First of all, if a writer needs profanity to make teen dialogue seem realistic, then a lot of it may be needed. For any work of fiction, overuse of profanity can become an annoying distraction to the reader. For some readers, it’s an outright turnoff, leading them to promptly put the book down.
For young-adult fiction, there’s a substantial economic price for the use of profanity. Although some youngsters purchase their own reading material, buyers of teen novels are often parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians. Many adults are reluctant to purchase teen fiction that includes gratuitous use of profanity. Editors and publishers may
share those feelings.
OMISSION OF PROFANITY
An alternative to the liberal use of profanity is to avoid the issue by totally leaving it out of the manuscript. After all, the best of fictional dialogue isn’t a transcription of real-life conversation: it’s distilled down to the very best and most appropriate, given the needs of the story.
If the characters and dialogue in the story are believable without profanity, there’s no problem. But will all of the characters be believable if they never use profanity, even in situations where its use seems natural? Maybe a compromise is in order.
SPARSE USE OF PROFANITY
Why not use profanity only in those few situations that are most important to the story? This approach has a benefit: if you seldom use profanity in your writing, it will stand out more when you actually do.
SUMMARIZED USE OF PROFANITY
If a writer is trying to limit or avoid the outright use of foul language, but the needs of the story call for it, the use of summary may be an acceptable alternative. Summarized profanity means using phrases like, “he cussed,” and “she cursed,” and “he cut loose with a string of expletives.” In fact, summary may very well serve the story better than interrupting the action with dialogue or distracting the reader with specific curse words.
By sanitized I mean sugar-coated substitutes. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” might be fine for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. “Oh, fudge!” “Shoot!” and “Darn it!” would be appropriate for some characters. On the other hand, there are situations where the words manure, dung, or poop might not adequately communicate a particular character’s emotion.
My young-adult novels deal with troubled teens, boys likely to pepper their conversation with expletives. As a novelist, I’ve weighed the costs and benefits of using profanity and have developed my personal guidelines:
Writing is largely about making choices, and writers of young-adult fiction are faced with decisions that may influence young people. Hopefully, this article has helped you make your own decisions about the use of profanity in your work.
Michael John Klaassen
The article above is an example of dozens published by Mike Klaassen in his free, monthly ezine For Fiction Writers. Subscribe now.