Unleashing the Chills: Writing Young Adult (YA) Horror Fiction That Haunts
YA literature has a special place in the hearts of readers of all ages, providing an avenue for self-discovery, empowerment and navigating the challenges of adolescence. In recent years, the horror genre has found a fervent following among young adult readers and writers.
But writing YA horror requires a delicate balance of fear, relatability and emotional resonance, and a genre choked full of dodgy cliches, it can be hard to navigate especially if you're a newer writer.
Here are a few insights into how to create spine-tingling tales that captivate and chill your audience.
(And regardless of what I said above, some cliches are totally a-okay!)
Understand Your Target Audience
YA horror literature caters to the unique sensibilities and experiences of teenage readers. That doesn't mean that only teenagers can read and enjoy it (hey, even us adults were young adults once... a long, long time ago...). No matter your age, it's essential to grasp the distinct mindset of young adults, including their fears, aspirations and struggles.
Address themes and issues that resonate with them - even the really tough ones - such as identity, friendship, first love, first loss, and all the many challenges of growing up, while infusing them with the chilling elements of horror. It's like a double-whammy of fear and tension.
Develop Empathetic Protagonists
Young adult readers need relatable characters they can invest in emotionally. Craft protagonists who embody the hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities of your target audience. These characters should face horrors that mirror the real-life anxieties of young adults, allowing readers to empathize with their struggles and personal growth.
Balance Horror and Empowerment
While horror aims to frighten and thrill, it's crucial to strike a balance by offering a sense of empowerment to young adult readers. Show how the protagonists navigate their fears, find their inner strength, and overcome adversity. YA horror should ultimately leave readers feeling empowered and inspired, demonstrating that even in the face of darkness, they have the ability to triumph.
Explore Coming-of-Age Themes
Horror can be a powerful vehicle for exploring the complexities of the coming-of-age journey. Addressing issues such as self-discovery, identity formation, and personal growth within the context of terrifying situations adds depth and relatability to your story. YA horror can serve as a metaphorical representation of the challenges young adults face as they navigate their transition into adulthood.
Maintain an Engaging Pace
YA readers have a penchant for fast-paced narratives that keep them hooked from start to finish. Maintain a brisk tempo in your storytelling, incorporating intense moments of suspense, action, and terrifying encounters. This ensures your readers remain fully invested and eager to turn each page, while also heightening the impact of horror elements.
Tackle Real-Life Fears
You can still write about ghosts, ghouls, aliens and selkies while exploring very real, very human emotions - even if your character POV is non-human.
While supernatural and paranormal elements are often present in horror, grounding your story in real-life fears adds a visceral quality to the experience. Explore fears and anxieties that young adults commonly face, such as the fear of failure, social isolation, loss of loved ones, or the uncertainty of the future. By blending the supernatural with relatable fears, you create a potent combination that resonates with young readers.
For example: take a story about a vampire who falls in love with a human. The vampire's family wants to slaughter an entire town of people for food, but that would mean the main character's love interest would also die in the carnage. The vampire has a fear that many humans experience in reality: the possibility of losing somebody they care about. You can layer more fears on top of your dominant fear, too. What if the vampire knows that their family would banish them from the group if it was revealed that they loved and wanted to save a human? There is another thing that they stand to lose - their sense of belonging to their own kind. Many young adults go through similar feelings of anxiety that they don't fit in, or that their interests could ostracise them from family and friends.
Create Atmospheric Settings
Setting plays a vital role in any horror story, and YA horror is no exception. Develop atmospheric and immersive settings that contribute to the overall sense of dread and unease. Whether it's a creepy small town, an abandoned building, or a haunted school, the setting should mirror the emotions and fears of the characters, amplifying the horror.
Many horror stories take setting a step further, making it almost like a supporting character in itself (e.g. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining). You can give your settings a sense of personality too, just be careful to blend it into the character action.
By understanding your target audience, developing empathetic characters, balancing fear and empowerment, exploring coming-of-age themes, maintaining an engaging pace, tackling real-life fears, and creating atmospheric settings, you can craft young adult horror stories that haunt readers long after they turn the final page. Embrace your inner darkness, baby!
If you have any thoughts about writing YA horror, feel free to drop a comment here on the blog. I'd love to hear from you!