On Writing : Question about point of view in young adult novels by Joe Bell

Question about point of view in young adult novels

In my novel I have a time traveler from the past and a modern teen as the romantic protagonists. When I'm writing for the modern female lead, first person pov comes very easy and naturally. The male lead is mainly treated from a third person limited pov, except where he's doing dialog. I think this is working, but I have no idea how this approach will fare with the YA audience, which I have recently been told is seriously addicted to first person pov. I still plan on writing it in the way I would like to hear it told, but I was wondering if anyone knew if there were expectations in the YA publishing business on how to handle pov. I ask this because a fairly disturbing event occurred tonight at my writing group. I read a pretty ordinary stretch of third person narration from my story, and one of the listeners was confused when the narrator knew something the pov character didn't know. It was as if she had a hard time recognizing that the narrator could be just the narrator and not a character in the story. Everybody else seemed to get it, but she was perhaps the youngest person in the room, and a big YA fan, so it set me wondering if this is going to be a problem for my narrative approach with a YA audience. Thoughts?

Max Malik

Who is the narrator? Is it a specific person in the story? Is he a "voice of god" (Third Person Omniscient)?

Joe Bell

Not so much the voice of God. More like the fly on the wall. Here's the scene. The time traveler (TT) is from ancient Rome. TT happens to be interacting with students in a modern high school. The students are texting, but TT doesn't know what texting is. What does the narrator say? The strangers were tapping magical little boxes? Or, the students were texting? I'm saying they were texting, because at that moment, my narrator is just a proxy for my (very modern) reader watching this take place. I'm staying outside of TT's head on purpose. I want him to be a man of mystery, to the modern observer. So the question is, does the YA audience insist the narrator must always be a character? If so, what's a good strategy for dealing with that?

Max Malik

Yes. The narrator must be a character. Here's why. Seeing the world akin to being a fly-on-the-wall is an adult way of perception. Scientists do it, parents do it, teacher's do it, you name it. But it's not how a teen sees the world. Teens' are obsessed with themselves. They are brought up, at least here in the USA, as though they are the "keys to the next generation" so to speak. They (and by extension, YA publishers) are not interested in events that don't personally involve them. They are not interested in slow stories describing the world around them. They want to be IN the story. Literally. Pacing is a huge thing in YAs. They are FAST. Almost freakishly so. So how do you write for YA's? Simple. Have the reader embody the main character. Your MC's life must be so awesome and fantastic that every reader is jealous they are not the MC. This is why YA writers make a considerable amount of their stories in the first person. It's easy to identify with a character if you can picture all the events through that character's eyes. But that doesn't make the third person non-viable. The trick to the third person is that the MC HAS to be in EVERY SCENE. If the MC is not in the scene, an already established character must be. In most Percy Jackson novels, Percy is front in center. It's written in the third person, but there is not one moment he is not on the page. If the YA in question has a narrator, they are the voice of a character telling the audiences their experiences (IE, their story). For example, Rick Riordan's "The Kane Chronicles" is structured as though the two main characters are giving an audio interview, and they are "re-telling" us their experiences. In the Third Person realm, Michael Scott's "The Alchymist" revolves around Sophie and Josh Newman's experiences as they get embroiled into a world of magic. I mean revolve literally, within the first 10 chapters, the story does not leave these two characters. Everything they see is what we see. So let's go to your story. You have a Time Traveler from Ancient Rome comment on texting. He watches some random student and says "This person is texting". Let's address the gigantic elephant in the room. You emphasize that The Time Traveler does not know what texting is. Having him say "This person is texting" is implying that he knows what texting is. Because the word "texting" is an adage from the modern day, something in which someone from Ancient Rome will not know. So what do we do? We get inside his head. What is he thinking when he sees a bunch of strangers looking at a black rectangular object in their hands? Or better yet. Let's say that Student A is trying to talk to Student B. Student B, however, is on their phone, he (or better yet, she) is not paying attention to anything Student A is saying. Student A touches a small black screen. Student B "understands", nods and walks away, with Student A walking in another direction, or following. What does the Time Traveler say to that? Up until recently, everyone communicated face to face. What I am trying to get at, is that instead of having him as a passive observer, he's a character, and we are seeing the world through his lens. So instead of saying: "She is texting" We can say instead: "She is a fool. Why is she looking down on the world, when the real story happens when she looks up? No one looks up anymore." Granted, I have no idea who this Time Traveler is. That's your task. Know your character, get into his head, and have us see the world through his eyes. Keep the pace up, establish a sense of danger at every turn, and make us jealous of your MC. Have all of that, and you got yourself one hell of a YA on your hands. Good luck. Hope this helps.

Joe Bell

I understand your points, and find them extremely discouraging. However, one small correction. I never said my time traveler actually comments on texting. The narrator comments on it. The time traveler and the narrator are not the same person. So an adult (as you point out) reading the text has no problem recognizing they have been brought into the scene as a fly on the wall, and a modern one at that. And that is exactly what happened in last night's reading. All the adults in the room never saw the problem, and transitioned effortlessly from being inside my heroine's head to being the fly on the wall. Having said that, let's assume all you say is true. If so, I guess won't worry about tailoring my story for YA publishers. My story won't tell that way. In my defense, I do spend a lot of time and effort getting inside the head of my main characters, so the YA population that can venture outside of that narrowly defined YA style should still find it an interesting tale.

Jeff Lyons

There are no rules about this stuff, you can do anything you want. But... there are best practices ... meaning readers like certain things and they like authors who deliver those things. One of them is a narrator who is a character in the story. They don't have to be a big player, but they do have to have some stake in the game--be affected by events. If you have a narrator who is just some fly on the wall in history then you are creating an unnecessary layer of distance between the story and the reader. It cuts the intimacy of the read. If you don't care about this, then go for it. YA readers like the closeup and personal, however. Your protagonist should really be the main POV, even if you're using unlimited omniscent voice.

David Taylor

Jeff is right, its a good idea for folk to know who/what they are listening to and in turn the narrator is invested in events.

Joe Bell

It's wonderful when a good rule facilitates the telling of a great story. But it is simply impossible to describe some events from "inside someone's head." Say you have a space thriller, and your astronaut is doing a space-walk on a long tether. His back is toward the tether's anchor to the ship. A tiny meteor just happens to shoot by and break that link. NOBODY saw it happen. It's not something that any story character will ever be able to describe, except forensically. So, if we make an absolute rule that nothing happens unless a character sees either the event or its after-effect, then in the narrative, from the astronaut's pov, the tether just magically breaks, and perhaps only later can the astronaut or some other character deduce that a meteor was the culprit. This is very limiting on how to tell the story, and it is a limitation that would not be endured in moving-making at all. For example, a movie made with absolute, rigid adherence to the "must be a character pov" rule would be unwatchable. It would be like looking at the screen of a first -person shooter game. You can't see anything the character's eyes are not looking at. You can't even see the pov character unless he/she is looking in the mirror. You could not have that tense moment in the thriller where the girl is looking out her front door while a dark figure sneaks up behind her. Do YA movie watchers watch those movies? Yes they do. Formulas in general are good guidance to approaches that have worked in the past, but when an outfit rigidly locks itself into a given formula because that how they've learned to milk the cash cow, hey, that's great for them, but not necessarily great for the art. Look at the Hallmark romances. It literally turns my stomach. I can set my watch by when certain events will occur. I don't want that kind of predictability from a story. I want surprise. I want to experience something ... unexpected. And I don't feel like I need to be inside everyone's head for that to happen. So if my approach isn't perfectly aligned with the YA formula, it is what it is. I am willing to work hard at my craft to tell a great story, but if I write something I don't believe in, how can I give my readers authenticity, which is the most important part of a great story? I don't want to jam awkward, fake stuff into the story, just to get past the guardians of the YA formula. But again, I think young people are freer and more flexible than the formulas by which some want to define them, and in the end will be more attracted to authenticity than some arbitrary rule of construction. At least that's what I hope.

Victor Daniel Vera

Whatever you do please don't write anothe twilight esque screenplay. I'm getting so tired of these movies focused around teenagers who do amazing things against all odds. I get that it shows that even under oppression those who are done being stepped on are going to band together to take down the man, but its been so overdone. I know Twilight isn't anything like that, but its seems all other YA movies have the same Twilight feel, from the acting, to the terrible writing, to the horrible most shoehorned romance between the main girl and the guy who used to be bad or who used to be against everything and all for himself and all of a sudden falls in love and it all changes for him. Please be original, it would be a breath of fresh air to see something YA if it has to, but be different from the rest.

Joe Bell

LOL! Last thing in the world I'm shooting for is Twilight Redux. Mostly it's a story that explores the boundaries of love, freedom, and time. Yes, there are large scale cataclysmic consequences if the romantic pair fails, but the movie version of this would require only a handful of special effects, and even those serve more as a backdrop for the human drama. At least that is my objective.

Linda Collison

Joe, I'm the author of several YA novels. I love to write in first person or close third for the immediacy it gives the reader. I'm looking forward to hearing from what pov you ended up with.

Douglas A. McClanahan

... indeed Linda, 1st person keeps it 'closer to the chest' & makes conversion to script format easier !

Linda Collison

I never thought about it that way, Douglas. I'm encouraged to hear that because I'm working on a short film based on a semi-autographical short story I wrote.

Annika Hylmö

Joe, thank you for this thread! I come to this with a "movie" pov, but I read a lot of YA novels trying to find something that could possibly be adapted (and that has not been optioned already). What makes a good story is great characters who go on a journey that we can identify with and relate to. Easier said than done to write, which is why the best stories almost always come from a lot of rewrites and notes from trustworthy others. Personally, I would listen to the "discouraging" notes and see what you can take from them, especially if they overlap. Ultimately it's a question of what you want with your story. If it's something that you are writing for yourself, then the notes really don't matter. If you are writing something that is for an audience (literary or visual), then you have to make sure that you connect with that group. In a way, it's as much about getting into your audience's head as it is about getting into your character's. I do feel that Max is right in that the Narrator is a character, as much as I also feel that the World(s) is a character in any story. We need to know the rules of the World and how those are confusing to the Narrator when the Characters do one thing or another. Just like the Characters, the World and the Narrator has roles to play in the story. The World establishes status quo and expectations for what is normative. The Narrator questions the World and explains it to us from a particular POV. The Characters are dropped into a World that they find confusing and challenging and where they make mistakes on their journey to try to get something that they think they want... and so on... It's tricky to get the "elements" in place, but that's part of what makes the journey as a writer so vulnerable and ultimately so satisfying!

Other topics in Authoring & Playwriting:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In