How to Write Young Adult Fantasy: Part 2 — Big-Picture Elements

“You could rattle the stars,” she whispered. “You could do anything, if you only dared. And deep down, you know it, too. That’s what scares you most.”

The above quote comes from a pivotal moment in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. Some might find it cheesy, but writing YA means tapping into those teenage moments of feeling the world is full of infinite possibilities. When looking at the big picture, remember that fantasy stories are about capturing that sense of adventure.

Part one focused on the target audience and qualities of popular YA fantasy novels. Here, we’ll cover the first three of the six core elements of a successful work in this genre:

  • Using a high-concept premise
  • Creating vivid world-building
  • Writing in a strong narrative voice

Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, I’ve chosen example titles that are widely popular or have won awards. They represent what has captured readers’ imaginations in the past few decades.

1. High-Concept Premise

A premise is the main idea of the story, whereas plot is the narrative arc — the beginning, middle, and end. The premise is what hooks the reader, showcasing what’s interesting about the story’s conflict.

For example, a boy with dyslexia and ADHD learns he’s the son of Poseidon and must find Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt to prevent a war between gods. You might recognize that as the premise of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. That’s high-concept for three reasons:

  • It’s easily summarized in one line
  • It involves dramatic stakes
  • It has familiar elements that can be visualized

A high-concept novel often presents a twist on a familiar trope, as Rachel Hartman does with dragons in her novel Seraphina. In this world, humans coexist beside dragons who can take human form but are driven by logic rather than emotion. This unique world-building element connects to the plot: when the human prince is found murdered, the cold-hearted dragons are blamed.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo also feels high-concept: six criminals carry out a heist to steal an imprisoned scientist from a heavily guarded fortress. You can already smell the comparative titles — Ocean’s Eleven meets Game of Thrones. The heist element and dark fantasy atmosphere are familiar, but when combined, they create something new and intriguing.

These quick elevator pitches are a way of telling readers, “Hey, if you like these types of stories, here’s another you might like…” High-concept novels usually have broad appeal, making them easier to market.

The important thing is that what’s unique about the story is easy for the reader to understand. It’s what makes them go, “Wow, that sounds so freakin’ cool — I’ve got to get my hands on this book!”

That’s how I felt when I first heard about This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, which is set in a city called Verity, where acts of violence give rise to monsters that feed on flesh, on blood, on souls. A passage from the novel captures this premise:

Someone pulls a trigger, sets off a bomb, drives a bus full of tourists off a bridge, and what’s left in the wake isn’t just shell casings, wreckage, bodies. There’s something else. Something bad. An aftermath. A recoil. A reaction to all that anger and pain and death. That’s all the Phenomenon was really, a tipping point. Verity had always been violent — the worst in all ten territories — it was only a matter of time before there was enough mass and all that bad started pulling itself together.

A high-concept premise can’t work on its own; it must be paired with a plot that delivers on the promise of that enticing main idea. This includes twists and turns, action scenes, and surprises in the magic system. The protagonist might be manipulated or betrayed by another character; they could break a recruit out of a high-security prison; or they might steal corrupt human souls by playing the violin.

If you want to write a high-concept novel, think of your premise as the one-sentence log line for a movie. Compare your story to a familiar concept and highlight what’s unique about the characters and the conflict.

2. Vivid World-Building

Even though YA sometimes puts less emphasis on world-building than adult fantasy, it can be equally imaginative. Novels with interesting worlds will pay special attention to the landscape, history, magic system, and sensory details.

Geography

Whether the story is set in a lush rainforest or an arctic landscape, geography impacts how the characters interact with that world. The main character of Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a sharpshooter who lives in the desert where immortal monsters lurk in the sand, like the Buraqi:

“For a second, it looked like a mortal horse. The next it was pure sand. Shifting from bright gold to violent red, fire and sun in a windswept desert.”

Magic systems often spring from the setting. You can tie world-building elements to the conflict or characterization, making them inseparable from the rest of the story. In Rebel of the Sands, the desert setting ties into a later reveal about the protagonist’s hidden powers.

History

History can also inform the story’s central conflict, such as with political tensions between kingdoms. The history that sets off the plot in Descendant of the Crane by Joan He is the emperors’ tradition of executing soothsayers — people who can see the future and manipulate matter. Magic was outlawed centuries ago, but the main character enlists the help of a soothsayer to find her father’s killer.

Magic System

Not all YA fantasy has a defined magic system, but those that do weave wonder into their worlds by highlighting one particular aspect that makes the story stand out. For The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, that aspect is the djinn. In this modern London setting, magicians have no inherent magical abilities; instead, they summon demons to do their bidding.

The interplay between a young magician and a wisecracking 5,000-year-old djinni is what makes this magic system especially appealing. There’s naturally character conflict every time magic is used, which we can see in the opening chapter of The Amulet of Samarkand when Bartimaeus is first summoned:

The kid spoke. Very squeakily.

“I charge you…to…to…” Get on with it! “T-t-tell me your n-name.”

That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew, and I knew that he knew, my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions, and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab — you don’t get just anybody when you call.

I chose a rich, deep, dark chocolaty sort of voice, the kind that resounds from everywhere and nowhere and makes the hairs stand up on the back of inexperienced necks.

“Bartimaeus.”

I saw the kid give a strangled kind of gulp when he heard the word. Good — then he wasn’t entirely stupid; he knew who and what I was. He knew my reputation.

Sensory Details

Sensory details also help a world come to life. Specific sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures invigorate the reader, making them excited to explore this new place. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is rich in detail inspired by West African mythology and Yoruba culture. One of the protagonists, Amari, observes the female nobility:

They wear their secrets like glittering diamonds, embroidery woven through their lavish buba tops and wrapped iro skirts. Their lies and lily-scented perfumes taint the honeyed aroma of sweet cakes I am no longer allowed to eat.

Adeyemi also describes mythical creatures like red-breasted firehawks and snow leopanaires that are as big as a hut, with “eight thick horns protruding from its back, sharp and glistening in black.” Writers can sprinkle in mentions about the clothing, music, food, plants, and animals that are native to the world they’ve created.

Cultural Diversity

YA fantasy worlds encompass a growing blend of cultures. The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala draws inspiration from Hindu mythology and ancient Indian history. Wicked Fox by Kat Cho focuses on Korean lore in featuring a protagonist who’s a gumiho — a nine-tailed fox who feeds on the energy of men to survive.

When you take inspiration from other cultures or feature characters from different backgrounds than yourself, be sure to do your research and find sensitivity readers who can tell you where you might be oversimplifying or missing certain nuances. “Doing research” entails reading beyond the Wikipedia entry:

  • Find articles, blogs, or books on the subject
  • Watch videos and documentaries
  • Visit places in person, if possible
  • Interview people from that background and listen carefully to what they have to say

Be aware that some readers will take issue with authors fictionalizing real-world belief systems like Native American skinwalkers or the Second Coming of Jesus. It’s also important to avoid generalizations and Hollywood stereotypes when forging a fantasy culture. Instead of depicting an Asian-esque world that’s a mashup of kung-fu movies, it might be better to choose a specific culture and delve into that particular mythology and atmosphere.

It can seem like a lot of work to write this type of world-building, but the payoff can be immense. A lot of publishers are looking for stories with non-Western settings and a diverse cast. That doesn’t mean you can’t write stories about a white guy with a sword storming castles in Medieval England. Diversity is about expanding the boundaries of the genre.

Fantasy has the freedom to create a world that’s different from our own history and that better represents the melting pot we currently live in. Readers are looking for diversity not just in terms of setting and culture, but in reimagining how society perceives race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, neurological differences, and physical ability.

Diverse settings and characters break the boredom that comes with reading the same type of book over and over. It also enables more readers to identify with the work, widening the audience, and gives other readers the chance to empathize with people who might not look or think like them — and developing that broader sense of empathy can positively impact our attitudes in the real world.

In addition, this genre can be used to explore contemporary issues through a new lens, as Daniel José Older, author of the urban fantasy series Shadowshaper, says in an interview with Booklist:

“…fantasy offers unique ways to think about race, power, and culture, because with fantasy we have a chance to dream up new rules, new arrangements, new forms of power, and also complicate and dramatize existing ones.”

He further encourages meaningful diversity in YA fantasy, stating:

“Folks tend to see right through transparent and facile forms of box-checking diversity. Ultimately, this is a question of cultivating a more honest, more soulful, more literary YA canon. This is about telling better stories to more people and getting at deeper truths. What are we waiting for?”

3. Strong Narrative Voice

A “strong” voice can be easily labeled with an adjective — a specific emotion is coming through on the page, whether it’s written in first-person or third-person point of view.

In YA fantasy, the prose should be accessible, meaning it’s fairly easy to read. Each paragraph is dedicated to moving the story forward. Even though the style is often more direct, the tone can vary widely. The narrative voice might be lyrical, dreamlike, blunt, lighthearted, serious, reflective, bitter, funny, or any combination thereof.

Consider Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, in which teenagers attend a boarding school for kids who have visited fantasy worlds and returned feeling out of place in the “real” world.

Here’s how McGuire introduces the main character Nancy, who lived for years in the Halls of the Dead after walking through a magical doorway to a pomegranate grove. This is the moment when she arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children:

She was tall and willowy and couldn’t have been more than seventeen; there was still something of the unformed around her eyes and mouth, leaving her a work in progress, meant to be finished by time. She wore black — black jeans, black ankle boots with tiny black buttons marching like soldiers from toe to calf — and she wore white — a loose tank top, the faux pearl bands around her wrists — and she had a ribbon the color of pomegranate seeds tied around the base of her ponytail. Her hair was bone-white streaked with runnels of black, like oil spilled on a marble floor, and her eyes were pale as ice. She squinted in the daylight. From the look of her, it had been quite some time since she had seen the sun.

The author uses a more distant, poetic third-person narration, which suits the story’s tone as a dark fairy tale.

Contrast that with the wry first-person voice of The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner:

I didn’t appreciate the way he spoke of me as another parcel to be dumped into a saddlebag or, in my case, a saddle. He walked over to a horse, and I could see that he gestured to me to join him, but I didn’t move. I hate horses. I know people who think that they are noble, graceful animals, but regardless of what a horse looks like from a distance, never forget that it is as likely to step on your foot as look at you.

Since the thief protagonist is a trickster character being forced to go on a quest, it makes sense for his voice to sound more casual and annoyed.

Narrative voice comes from filtering observations through a particular emotion. As you revise your story, highlight any descriptions that sound cliché or generic. If you write, “The old building was falling apart,” consider how you might enliven that sentence with fresh phrasing.

In her novel All That Glitters, Gita Trelease describes the protagonist’s home in an interesting way:

“The stone edifice had once stood proudly, but now it leaned against its neighbor, as if tired from standing straight all those years.”

This sentence holds the same meaning as “The old building was falling apart,” but it creates a quaint mood by personifying the setting. It evokes a feeling rather than just a stock image.

When choosing a narrative voice, make sure the tone is consistent throughout and that it suits the character (if you’re writing in first person) or atmosphere (if you’re writing in third person). Also consider the mechanics of each sentence in conveying that tone. Be purposeful in the way you’re telling the story.

  • Is the language informal or formal?
  • Do the sentences tend to be short or long?
  • Is the vocabulary straightforward or lofty?
  • Why are you telling it in this voice and not another?

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you’re working on a YA fantasy novel, consider these three questions:

1. How would you describe the overall conflict in one sentence?

2. What’s unique about your fantasy world?

3. What three adjectives capture the narrative voice?

Your Reading Diet

One last tip: Reading YA fantasy novels, especially books published within the last two years, can help you develop all of these elements and will increase the chances that your book will fit within the current market.

However, I urge you to also read widely outside the genre, particularly books in genres you don’t want to write in or that are outside your comfort zone. Nonfiction can yield a lot of great story fodder, too.

Innovative ideas come from the cross-pollination of genres, and you can cultivate intriguing hybrids by borrowing from the fruits of other literary varieties.

Part three of this series covers the character aspects of YA fantasy: driven protagonists, contrasting relationships, and meaningful friendships.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

What stands out about your novel? Impress me in the comments.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

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Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

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