Writing YA? Screw Your Message

I find a lot of writers new to YA are under the impression that a YA novel must have some kind of “message”, a lesson the young reader can take away from the book. Let me let you guys in on a little secret: teenagers hate being preached to. I repeat: teenagers hate being preached to. Repeat it to yourself until it sinks in, because knowing this will save you a world of grief. If you start writing a book purely to put a message across, it will be so obvious and so insulting that you’ll be lucky to have any readers at all. While it’s possible to find lessons in morality in popular stories like Harry Potter, you’ll find they grow organically out of the story and the story always comes first. The reader is not beat over the head with it.

This goes for any work of fiction. You can dress it up with fancy names (message, moral lesson, life lesson, whatever you want to call it), but flatulence by any other name still stinks. Fiction is not the place to preach. If you’ve spent even a minute with a teenager, you will realize they hate lectures, they hate being told what to do and they hate being patronised. I repeat again: teenagers hate being preached to.

This is what bothers me about adults critiquing YA novels by attacking their themes, saying such-and-such is teaching teenagers the wrong things about relationships or this-and-that tells teenagers it’s okay to hurt people. Teenagers are not stupid, especially teenagers who read. There’s a word for people who think doing something is okay because a work of fiction said so: psychotic.

So ditch the preaching. Let the story’s themes and message unfold organically from the narrative. As I often say, teenagers have finely tuned bullshit detectors. Give them the credit they deserve. If you want to write for them, you must understand and respect them. YA fiction is not the place to make a quick buck, nor is it a training ground on the way to writing “real” novels. If you believe that, then go off and write your “real” novels and leave the rest of us to enjoy what we do. Teens deserve the best writing we can give them, and a little trust that they know right from wrong without a thinly veiled morality lesson disguised as fiction.

22 thoughts on “Writing YA? Screw Your Message

  1. Thank you! I keep telling people its fiction and the point of fiction if you want to make money is to entertain. If somehow I do get some message across along the way. If not, great! Either way, whatever comes out says nothing about what message the writer is trying to get across, if I was trying to get one across to begin with. I hate preachy books even as I get older because damn it im going to do what I decide and a book isn’t going to make my decisions for me. Amen to this post. I’m glad someone else is ranting about it besides me!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. While my book does deal with questions of death and the meaning of life, I try to make it real to life and not pushing any one view. My thoughts in writing my book are to be true to the characters, not to some “ideal moral view”.

    I hate reading something when I feel the author is sitting over me screaming,”this is how you should think”. I have my own mind, thank you very much.

    • Having themes in a book is fine. Awesome, actually. One of my novels has quite a political backdrop but I try not to go into it too much because it’s not the main point of the book. For the most part, fiction is not supposed to change your mind about something. It’s supposed to make you think, sure, but the primary purpose is to entertain.

  3. Yes! I have put books like that aside as well as read posts of authors who like their “messages” and cringed. If I started thinking about the lessons my main characters teach readers, I would probably go crazy and doubt every character. As far as I’m concerned almost every teenager is smart enough to know that murder is not a solution and violence is not rainbowy and unicorns.

    • I’m of the opinion that putting a message in a book is really quite pretentious. The focus is better spent on thinking about how you want your readers to feel. While my own work sometimes has feminist or anti-authority undertones (not necessarily at the same time), it is not my intention to force my views onto others. People will think what they want to think, and teenagers think more than people give them credit for.

  4. hey- found you through RTW and saw on another post that you’ve got some Dutch roots. I lived in the NL for five years and had both my kids there, so it holds a special spot in my heart. :0)

    “There’s a word for people who think doing something is okay because a work of fiction said so: psychotic.” LOL. Well said.

  5. While I think it’s impossible to avoid including some sort of thematic elements that can be considered a “message,” I think great authors leave it open enough to interpretation that their books can be read in multiple ways (which is why I generally dislike strongly allegorical books). Case in point: Ender’s Game, a book that people have viewed as being about everything from leadership to growing up and losing innocence and the experience of soldiers dealing with combat.

    • Those are themes, not the sort of moral lessons I’m talking about here. The point of this post was to call out the erroneous assumption by some authors who think that by writing young adult fiction they need to teach their readers some kind of lesson about what they can and can’t do. Themes, as I’ve said in a number of comments, are perfectly fine and, in actuality, encouraged.

  6. I agree. I taught in a 7-12 building for seven years. Teens don’t want a lesson thrown in their face. Besides, if you have real characters with genuine emotions, teen will relate and find something to take away from the story on their own without the author providing a set lesson for them.

  7. Just found you through Ben and was immediately drawn to this post. I couldn’t agree more! I read to get away from all of that. I hate doing homework with the kids. The last thing I want to do is sit down with my book and get another lesson. Unless I’m reading a craft book, of course. The only message I want to see must be weaved organically into the story. a bi-product, and not something they are throwing in my face at every twist and turn.

    Great post. Thanks Ann.

  8. In my last year of being a teen (I’m turning 20 this year), I couldn’t agree more. The story should always come first. I’ve always felt that a story is a story. It gives you a place where you can forget your troubles for a while and just focus on someone else’s story. That’s the beauty of fiction, I think, and why I love to write. The message will come through (subconsciously)… Perhaps after a cup of hot chocolate, when you sit back and think about what you just read, you’ll be glad that you’ve learnt something from it. But you don’t need to. Sometimes it’s just good enough to read a really awesome story.

    Thank you for writing this post and thinking so highly of us teens. :) YA Fiction will forever be my favourite. Hee hee.

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