4 Things Every YA Writer Should Know About Teens | Jane Friedman

4 Things Every YA Writer Should Know About Teens | Jane Friedman

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Today’s post is by author and book coach Samantha Cameron.

Years ago, I had a student in my AP World History class, who, despite seeming interested in the class, never submitted any homework. It was tanking her grade. Hoping to solve this no-homework spiral, I pulled her aside and asked what she did after school most days.

“Most days, I get home from school and start reading a book. and then I can’t stop reading the book. I keep reading until I finish, and by then it’s the middle of the night, and I’m tired, so I go to bed.”

We never did solve her homework problem, but she passed the class and graduated. As a writer and avid reader myself, I have a soft spot for the kids who hide open novels under their desks or stay up all night reading. As their teacher, I know I’m supposed to keep them on task and insist on better study habits. But, whenever I see a teenager reading instead of something else they’re “supposed” to be doing, I can’t help but think, Well, there’s worse things they could be up to.

I also know that a good novel has everything teen brains are primed to crave—excitement, emotion, and escape.

Since most YA authors are adults, we need to rely on our memories of adolescence to write teen characters. No matter how vivid your memories are, the fact remains that teenage brains function differently than adult ones. These differences are deeper than the poor impulse control that makes you want to scream, “What were you thinking?”

As a high school teacher who writes for teens, here are four things about the adolescent mind every YA writer should know.

1. Teens are easily bored.

Compared to adults and younger children, adolescents have a low baseline level of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that rewards us with a little rush of good feelings when we do things essential for survival—like, eating carbohydrates. It also rewards us for survival-adjacent behaviors such as learning a new skill, socializing, or getting lost in a good story. Additionally, dopamine plays a role in learning, mood regulation, memory formation, and sleep.

Low dopamine makes teens more susceptible to stress and depression but also makes everything—even things they used to find interesting—a total snoozefest.

Because of their low dopamine levels, teens crave novelty—new experiences. Books can be a great source of novelty, but they need to deliver right out of the gate to keep a teen reader engaged.

It’s not just low levels of dopamine that make teenagers picky readers. The average American teenager is overbooked. They’re in school 6–7 hours per day and may have nearly as many additional hours in the day dedicated to homework, extracurricular activities, and jobs. That’s a 12–14 hour workday! and, on top of that, teens need more sleep than any time since they were toddlers, between 9–12 hours per night. If a teenager is going to spend any of their precious free time on reading a book, it had better capture their attention fast.

What this means for you: Trim your story down to only the most relevant and interesting parts.

2. Teens are naturally curious.

Teen brains are highly plastic. In neuroscience, plasticity refers to how pliable and adaptable the mind is. For all the shortcomings of the adolescent brain (poor decision-making, mood swings, regrettable sartorial choices, etc.), one miraculous thing about it is the incredible capacity for learning new things and the rapidity with which teens can acquire new skills. On any given day, your teen is learning Spanish, world history, calculus, and how to drive.

Teens are primed for learning, while also being easily bored. Paired together, these two facets of their brain chemistry make teenagers naturally curious people. They are eager to know more about the world around them, and especially to learn about other teenagers. Books are well-suited to deliver. A novel gives the teen reader the closest possible experience of getting to live in someone else’s skin.

In later adolescence, kids become capable of more cognitive complexity. Most kids are strongly driven by a sense of fairness and justice, and in later teen years, kids start grappling with contradictions and shades of grey. Moral and ethical complexities give their hungry, novelty-craving brains a lot to chew on.

What this means for you: Give teen readers the opportunity to learn new things and have new experiences. Give them big dilemmas and questions to chew on, rather than a sermon.

3. Teen emotions are powerful.

That low dopamine again. While everything in the teenage universe suddenly feels so B-O-R-I-N-G, the low levels of dopamine in their brains also makes their emotions feel extremely powerful, especially brand-new emotions like the first flutters of romantic love.

So, a teen who is feeling bored and alone can experience the rush of a love affair or the adventure of political rebellion from the safety of their own couch. It’s a chance to feel the big feelings they might not be getting to feel in their real lives.

What this means for you: Put your protagonist’s feelings on the page so that your reader can feel them too.

4. Teens need to experiment and test boundaries.

Developmentally, teens are in a phase of life where they’re exploring big issues about identity and their place in the world. That’s why so many coming-of-age stories center around identity formation. One of the ways teens figure out who they are is by testing out different ways of being. Just like reading a book is a great way for teens to experience emotional release, reading is also a way for teens to try on and contemplate new identities. It’s a chance for them to see their own experiences reflected back to them and to realize that they aren’t alone in feeling the way that they do. It’s only as an adult that I’ve had a chance to read books with bisexual protagonists and it has been an incredible affirmation to realize that truly there are other people out there who feel the way I do. It would have been super helpful when I was a semi-closeted bisexual teenager to have read those books!

Because teens are so close to adulthood, this boundary testing isn’t just about identity formation (or giving their parents grey hairs), it’s also about autonomy and independence. They want and need a chance to do things for themselves.

What this means for you: Put teen protagonists in the driver’s seat. Give your hero the agency that your readers may lack in their own lives. Again, don’t be preachy. Not only will readers of all ages find it boring, teens are particularly allergic to condescension. They also have perfectly honed BS detectors. They know when you’re trying to feed them something you don’t believe in. Instead of a sermon, show a protagonist facing a big dilemma or testing boundaries so that your teen reader can come to their own conclusions.

(Bonus) 5. Teens have trouble sleeping.

As I mentioned previously, most teens need between 9–12 hours of sleep per night, but many early adolescents also experience what is known as a sleep phase shift. Basically, their body’s natural release of melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel sleepy) shifts by about two hours. So, instead of being ready to fall asleep at 9 p.m., the way they once used to, many teens aren’t physically ready to go to sleep for the night until between 11 p.m. and midnight, no matter how long their day has been or how early they have to get up the next morning. This shift can be so dramatic that to some kids, it feels like insomnia. These same sleepless hours that attract kids to hours of scrolling on social media also make them susceptible to a good page-turner. So, if you pack your novel with plenty of excitement, emotion, and escapism, you can hook your teen readers and keep them turning pages late into the night.

For more on teen brains and writing:

Samantha Cameron

Sam Cameron (she/her) is a high school history teacher, YA author, and Author Accelerator Certified book coach specializing in kid lit. She writes the weekly Substack Truant Pen where she shares actionable advice for stuck writers. To learn more, visit her website or Instagram.

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