The Power of Place in YA Novels

The setting of a novel has so much power over the story. Characters constantly interact with the setting. Sometimes the setting is like a character itself! So, where does your story take place?

A boarding school?
Put teens in a small environment where they’re forced to rub each other’s elbows and you’re bound to have a wealth of conflict! Boarding schools usually assume that no parents are involved. Pranks, good and bad teachers, sneaking around—aka, fun galore!

Harry Potter by JK Rowling, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Gallagher Girls by Ally Carter, The It Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar, Sabriel by Garth Nix

A small town?
Everyone knows your name. Everyone is interested in your secrets and your past. If you get in trouble, you can bet your parents are going to know about it that night. And someone is bound to notice your main character sneaking off with the resident bad boy.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, The Secret Circle by LJ Smith, The Tale of Lunarmorte by Samantha Young, Winnemucca by Laura Elliott, Glimpse by Stacey Wallace Benefiel

Or maybe your character switches from our real world to the invisible magic places of her city? Or a different magic world through portals?
Readers love the escapism these kind of environments proved, the “things aren’t what they seem” idea. It’s fun to read about our real world and switch to a complete fantasy world on the next page.

The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, The Iron Fey by Julie Kagawa, Modern Tales of Faerie by Holly Black, Wicked Lovely by Marissa Marr, Memory’s Wake by Selena Fenech

Or are we in a different magic world together?
A completely new magic world gives the author complete creative freedom. They can create anything and control everything in this world! It’s a true escape for a reader: step into a world with different rules, different societies, different species.

Graceling/Fire/Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, Eon by Allison Goodman, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Slumber by Samantha Young, Firelight by Sophie Jordan, The Protectors by yours truly,

Or are we in a dystopian world?

Dystopians (and utopians) are a good way to comment about real problems in our world by exploring a fantasy world. A lot of social commentary can be found in this genre, and teens are at the stage where they’re noticing a lot of things in the world that aren’t quite right. There is also a general theme of overcoming the oppressors in power, and this speaks to a lot of us, not just teens. When those who are oppressed rise above, working against their fear and threats from those in power, it can be a very inspiring story.

As you can see from the huge list, dystopian is pretty big these days! A lot of them tend to deal with the same subjects, too. If you explore dystopian, use some of the same tropes (loss of individuality and rights, jaded majority, powerful minority) but explore them in a different way with new ideas. For example, in Gone by Michael Grant, everyone who was older than 14 disappeared, making their town a dystopian. Or Shatter Me has a fantasy aspect to it because the main character has a touch that kills.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, Divergent by Veronica Roth, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, The Sphinx Project by Kate Hawkings, Matched by Ally Condie, The Host by Stephenie Meyer, Maze Runner by James Dasher, Gone by Michael Grant, Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Partials by Dan Wells

Or maybe it’s Anytown, USA?
A lot of times, stories take place in a town that could be anywhere — any mid-sized town in the US (and sometimes other countries), any place with two rival high schools and that trendy coffee shop and the Hamptons right next to the sticks.

Sometimes this really works for a story. Maybe as an author you don’t want the setting to be extremely distinctive, but you want the reader to feel like the story could take place in her city. This can really work, but know that every setting has something unique. Weather, politics, geography, yearly fairs and events — no matter what, you should have something unique about Springfield or Greenville.

Storm by Brigid Kemmerer, Intangible by J Meyers, the Vampire Diaries by LJ Smith

So when thinking about where to set your book, keep in mind that it has a lot of influence on the story! Don’t hesitate to give the setting its own personality. The reader should feel like they could be there themselves, regardless of whether it’s a boarding school or an alien spaceship. Engage your reader’s senses and have fun with it!

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