Storytelling Inspiration

4 Lessons on Brand Content Creation from YA Novels

Meg Cannistra By Meg Cannistra March 23, 2016

When my boyfriend told his grandmother I’m working on a novel for young adults, she congratulated me, but added that hopefully one day I’ll be “writing for the big girls.” Her comment didn’t surprise me. Despite 55% of young adult novels being purchased by adults, many still don’t believe YA is a valid form of literature.

However, this hasn’t stopped readers from devouring YA novels, going to movies based on their favorite series, or following YA authors all over social media. It also hasn’t stopped the publishing industry from producing more and more YA books each year.

As with any form of content, there are great YA novels and horrible ones. A YA novel’s success goes beyond dystopian societies and reimagined fairy tales—it requires a number of thoughtful writing techniques. And these same techniques can help you ensure your brand stands out amidst the content white noise.

Below are 4 writing techniques from YA novels you can use to give your brand content mass appeal.

Respect Your Audience

Eleanor & Park

I’ve heard the argument many times that those who read YA books should be embarrassed. It’s hard to refrain from rolling my eyes whenever someone says this—and not just because I write young adult fiction. This attitude discounts the experiences of those who read YA books, as well as the hard work authors put into writing their novels. Though there are a few outliers, many YA authors strive to respect their audiences above all else. Rather than talk down to their readers or fill their books with lazy writing, authors connect with their fans and take their thoughts and experiences into consideration.

One of my favorite books, Eleanor and Park, uses alternating perspectives to tell the story of how Eleanor and Park fall in love amidst bullying, abuse, and growing up in the 80s. Author Rainbow Rowell doesn’t sugar-coat their romance, nor does she fill their story with overly dramatic scenes of angst. She presents a realistic view of adolescence that resonates with her audience. Her male lead isn’t a brooding hero and her female protagonist isn’t whiny or passive. Both are dynamic, three-dimensional characters. Furthermore (and spoiler alert!), Eleanor and Park don’t ride off into the sunset together at the end. Rowell knows her audience doesn’t need a cheezy happily ever after; instead, she gives them a realistic and hopeful ending that aligns more with reality.

Content Creation Takeaway

Despite our best efforts, sometimes we overlook our audience when creating brand content. Truthfully, it can be difficult seeing our audience as people instead of data. When it gets difficult to see the individuals that comprise your audience, it’s important to take a step back and look at who they are and what they want. Conducting a survey in order to discover what your audience really wants, or even asking directly via social media can help you get a better understanding of what makes them tick. When it comes down to it, your audience (and not just how they’re represented on a graph) should always be at the forefront of your mind when creating brand content.

Know Your Story

Lair of Dreams

Sometimes, we get so excited about telling the story in our head that we don’t stop to think about what that story is. If you’ve ever sat down to revise a novel, you know how hard it is to see the forest through the trees and hone in on the actual story. I’m currently in the throes of revision, and find myself surrounded by piles of research, trying to make sure every plot hole is carefully filled. Understanding your story inside and out is key to ensuring people will want to get lost in. This takes a lot of time, plotting, and patience. But when a story is fully fleshed out, it feels like a living, breathing world for your audience.

I’ve been a huge fan of Libba Bray’s ever since I was 14 and my sister introduced me to A Great and Terrible Beauty. Her most recent novel, Lair of Dreams, is the second book in her Diviners series. Lair of Dreams follows a group of people with special powers—known as Diviners—in 1920s New York City. These people come from all walks of life and deal with their abilities in different ways. Bray ensures we hear each voice by telling the story from multiple points of view. She also made sure she knew the story she was trying to tell by doing immense amounts of research. It’s clear that in Lair of Dreams, Bray spent many, many hours poring over the experiences of immigrants in 1920s America, as well as the social, economic, and political climate of the era. Because these weren’t her experiences and she couldn’t rely on personal anecdotes, Bray took great care to get the story right.

Content Creation Takeaway

Knowing your story, really knowing its heart, will help you better communicate it to your audience. Like in novels, plot holes can creep into brand content—particularly when you don’t fully understand your brand’s mission and how it relates to your audience. By putting in time to research your brand and the narrative you’re trying to build around it, you can develop a more meaningful piece of content that’ll help your company stand out among the crowd.

Don’t Imitate

Etiquette & Espionage

We all like to think our ideas are original and unique, but the fact is no idea is truly original. That being said, it does little good for a YA author to ride the coattails of the latest trend. After Twilight came a deluge of predictable vampire romance novels; The Hunger Games brought us more dystopian novels than were necessary; and The Fault in Our Stars begat thousands of heavy-handed contemporary realism books. Some of these succeed (see Divergent), but writing a copycat of a more popular novel isn’t something you can build a sustainable career on.

I read Gail Carriger’s adult fiction before reading her YA debut, Etiquette & Espionage. Set in an alternate, steampunk Victorian-era Britain, the novel follows Sophronia as she’s enlisted in a top-secret spy academy that fronts as a finishing school for young girls. There she meets a band of smart, talented young women training to be spies and learns the best way to assassinate a target as well as how to dance a quadrille. Yes, there were other steampunk YA novels before Etiquette & Espionage, but rather than imitate novels within the genre in the hopes of replicating their success, Carriger tells a story that suits her style and strives to subvert cliches. In doing so, she creates a novel that rises above imitation and lands on a plane that feels fresh.

Content Creation Takeaway

It’s easy to look at the success your competitors have with their content and try to replicate it for your own brand. And there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by another company’s content. But it’s important to remember when looking to competitors for ideas that not everything will work for your brand. You must maintain your brand’s style and voice. Losing your brand identity in the pursuit of imitation will hurt your content in the long run. Rather than mimicking your competitors, look at the context around their content. Who is their audience? How do they distribute their content? What themes do they employ? By looking at the context, you can get a better sense of why their content works and experiment with employing similar techniques in a way that works well for your brand.

Know When to Quit

Harry Potter - Magic in North America

When a publisher grabs hold of a good (and lucrative) story, sometimes they’re reluctant to let go. We’ve seen this with many YA series, and it can be heartbreaking watching a once-beloved story become riddled with convoluted plots, poorly researched concepts, and one-dimensional characters. A cool idea can only carry an author so far; after time, it’ll start to feel tired being rehashed and stuffed into so many different packages.

Earlier this month, J.K. Rowling published four short stories on Pottermore detailing the wizarding world in the United States. A tie-in to the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (which is due out later this year), these stories touch on everything from Native American legends about skinwalkers to segregation. As exciting as it is to get information on the magical history of North America, the stories aren’t well researched and feel sloppy. It’s also been argued by many that Rowling’s wizarding world doesn’t scale because its focal point over the course of the series is Hogwarts, which is a much smaller world to develop. Recycling and repacking the Harry Potter universe into several different pieces of content, though profitable, is beginning to wear on her fans.

Content Creation Takeaway

As content marketers, it’s our job to come up with innovative stories that can be used over and over without losing their luster. Sometimes, these ideas are easy to scale and actually fit well into different content types. They may even continue to generate leads and engage audiences for months to come. But, like with the Harry Potter extended universe, it’s important to know when to quit. The more you force a story to stretch, the more its seams will show. After time, it might start wearing a little thin or looking sloppy when packaged in a different content type. Repackaging content is a great way to help build a foundation for your marketing program, but not every story (even if it’s awesome) can withstand that kind of treatment. Make sure the content you intend on reusing in other mediums is broad enough to still feel new when divided up. By starting with a more general story and honing in on more specific themes each time it’s reworked, you can make it feel fresh without sacrificing quality.

The Bottom Line

Creating brand content isn’t all that different from writing YA novels. With audiences that crave exciting and original stories, YA authors are experts at delivering content that’ll keep their readers hooked. Next time you’re at the bookstore, take a look at the young adult section for more tips on producing addictive content for your brand.

 

Featured Image Courtesy of Books of Amber

Brand Storytelling eBook


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