Notes on how to write a best-selling YA Fantasy

I’ve been researching YA. Here are basic 27 YA writing tips. I won’t mention the obvious stuff, like “write believable characters”. These are notes about how to write plot-driven fiction.

1. The most basic rule of heroic fiction is that we want to read about someone that we would like to be. Make your heroine impossibly cool and that’s half the battle.


2. An adventure story is simply about some obstacle and the alacrity and struggle necessary to overcome it.

3. What is needed above all else: an evil villain. The more wicked the better. A great villain is unique and often seductive enough to steal the whole show. think of Darth Vader.


4. Stupid henchmen are entertaining.

5. Oh, how the human mind loves to imagine action scenes! Sword fights, explosions, and chandelier swinging never gets old. (Or is that just because I’m a guy?)

6. Cliffhangers 101. Find all the points of biggest tension and put chapter breaks there. That will trick the reader into staying up all night to read just one more chapter.

7. Cliffhangers may be resolved by Dues Ex Machina, or big dumb coinkydinks, doesn’t matter, a cliffhanger is a cliffhanger.

8. Often what separates a genre novel from a literary novel is just the sheer amount of plot happening in an adventurey page-turner. In order to keep the pages flipping fast the author must sometimes get clumsy, sacrifice grace to speed. E.G. characters having conversations that are obviously just to serve the purpose of providing background information to the reader. It is often done clumsily but gets the job done. Of course this is necessary in a fantastic world, but it is best if the reader doesn’t pick up on it happening.

9. Know the shoulder that you stand upon. For example Bartimeaus does a nice job of grafting the Harry Potter “boy wizard in training” plot onto the Hunger Games “revolutionaries foment rebellion against the rich tyrant class” trope, currently all the rage.

10. One thing that has changed since I was a young adult reader, background characters seem to get killed with much more regularity. Worth noting, that’s all.

11. As the plot gallops along from chapter to chapter, it is always a pleasant feeling for the reader if they can piece things together (what is really happening) a bit faster than the main character. That way there is a nice tension between what the reader knows and what the hero/heroine thinks they know. So we can shout at the page “No, don’t open that door!”

12. YA is often about the young versus old, of course.

13. Clichés became clichés for a reason. Clichés were ridiculously entertaining the first time around. The trick is to make your dragon, your wizard, your magic ring etc. new. Make it new.

14. What happens next? That’s always easy: out of the frying pan, into the fire.

15. Another simple recipe for a novel: two characters POV back and forth, through escalating and more harrowing trials, each providing a different perspective on the larger paracosm.

16. Any scene is easier to describe for the reader if it is already a familiar set piece– The mansion party, the bustling kitchen full of cooks and waiters, the rowdy pub, the snowy forest etc. Of course this must be balanced with original innovations. Consider the “planets” visited in Star Wars are simply the desert, the arctic cold, the forests of Pacific NW etc.


17. People love reading about disguises.

18. And food. People looove reading about food.


19. If you want to paint a group of people as unlikable don’t forget to make them rich, decadent, and rude to their servants.

20. Nothing should come easy. The longer it takes the hero to achieve something, the more believable it is. Of course the stakes must be convincing or this is boring. By convincing I mean they must feel believable and important. Ask this of every page: who cares? And, really

21. Humor. Action. Suspense. Character development. If a page doesn’t provide one of these four it is useless.

22. Gear. We want to know what gear the characters have. Cool swords, clothes, hair, etc. People love unique gadgets. But it must be original, for example it will be very hard to pull of a female who is an ace with a bow and arrow as long as people know who Katniss is.


23. Systems of magic that are rich and believable are almost always based on actual old systems and beliefs of magic. Summoning, conjuring, necromancy, runes etc. Readers are very savvy now-a-days with the sort of stuff that once was only known by geeks who played D&D.

24. Is anything cooler than flying? No.

25. Use lots of smells. New science shows that when we read a description of a smell: Coffee, leather, strawberry, etc. It triggers the same activity in our brains actually smelling the thing. Every book is a scratch and sniff book.

  1. A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world created inside one’s mind. This fantasy world may involve humans, animals, and things that exist in reality; or it may also contain entities that are entirely imaginary, alien, and otherworldly. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, the experience of such a paracosm is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

27. Of course the best writing tip is to simply write the book that you would like to read.

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