Being Edgy In Young Adult Fiction

What does the term ‘edgy’ mean in terms of Young Adult fiction, and how can writers achieve it?

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There is a term in fiction writing, particularly popular within the young adult demographic, known as ‘edgy.’ The use of this term has soared in the last half-century, with writers striving to get agents, publishers, critics and readers to consider their work as such. Even Sally Green, author of the 2014 hit Young Adult novel Half Bad, had her manuscript first rejected because it wasn’t deemed to be ‘edgy’ enough.

So, what does this sought after term actually mean and what will it take to make your YA story ‘edgy’?

For something to be ‘edgy’ it must be teetering on the edge of something, let’s say a cliff. If you don’t tread close enough to the edge then you’re not being edgy enough, but tread too far and you’ll fall off. With Young Adult novel themes, this theory means a writer must bravely get close enough to a difficult-to-talk-about-with-adults topic without delving so far as to have their work deemed too ‘edgy’ to be YA, and getting pushed up into the adult age bracket.

One of the first notable novels of this kind was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, released in 1967. It’s a story of teenagers divided by wealth, with the working class living on one side of town and the children of more affluent families living on the other. They have a strong rivalry and get into many physical confrontations over girls, territory, pretty much anything. This book was, and still is, banned from many libraries and schools due to its content, which includes gang warfare, smoking and underage drinking. This novel was one of the first to really push the boundary of what was acceptable content for teenager fiction.

That being said, the line between going too far and not going far enough with themes is slowly moving with each boundary pressing new novel release. Smoking and underage drinking make a fairly common occurrence in recent YA literature, and have been overtaken with more boundary-pressing themes such as school shootings, suicide, eating disorders, terminal illness, self-harm, abuse and incest. Subjects considered as ‘edgy’ are topics parents hush their children from talking about as they want to try and shield them. The importance of including these topics in YA literature is due to the curiosity of teenagers, because it’s better that they read about these themes from the safety of a good book rather than their lack of answers leading them to experience things first-hand.

Writers wanting to have their work deemed as ‘edgy’ need to research into fiction already out there for their target readers, and discover how existing authors have successfully and sensitively approached current ‘edgy’ themes. It’s also worth considering that what can be classed as ‘edgy’ is certainly in the eye of the beholder depending on a readers’ individual experience, and is more likely to be described as such by adults instead of the YA target demographic.

A few books to get you started on your research into the evolution of the ‘edgy’ section of YA fiction would be Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien (1974), The Wave by Morton Rhue (1981), Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty (1991), Stone Cold by Robert Swindells (1997), Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (2001), Hate List by Jennifer Brown (2009), Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma (2010), and I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga (2012).

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If you have a story in mind that contains no themes currently classed as sensitive or difficult enough topics to be deemed as ‘edgy,’ but you would still like your work to contain these elements, then let your characters do the work for you. Use their impulsive personalities and choices to give your story spontaneity and keep your readers on the edge of their seats. And please, don’t give them punk-styled neon hair or tattoos or piercings, or anything else you believe will make them physically appear ‘edgy,’ because it simply will not cut it. ‘Edgy’ characters do not, and should not, need to physically appear so to be considered as such. The prim girl with the perfect manicure or the preppy, popular boy could be driven to do very shocking things, if their reasons are strong enough. It all comes back to that ‘show, don’t tell’ advice that writers hear time after time, and for good reason. Your readers don’t want to be told a character is ‘edgy’ through their appearance, but want to make that judgement for themselves as they make their way through your story.

Many popular Young Adult stories considered to be ‘edgy’ have a good mix of both challenging themes and intriguingly characters. Panic by Lauren Oliver explores the mind-sets of a group of deprived teenagers who will cross many boundaries in order to escape their crappy town and make a better life for themselves. This includes partaking in the illegal and often life-threatening graduation game of Panic in the hope of winning the huge prize money. Heather, the lead female character, is hinted at having a curiosity towards the idea of committing suicide. Here’s an extract depicting Heather’s state of mind while she walks over a plank fifty feet in the air suspended between two water towers.

She raised her arms unconsciously for balance, no longer thinking of Matt or Delaney or Bishop staring up at her, or anything other than all that thin air, the horrible prickling in her feet and legs, an itch to jump.

Panic by Lauren Oliver

It’s this subtle hinting at the sensitive subject of suicide that makes Oliver’s approach to this theme ‘edgy’—it’s written in ink for all to see and interpret, especially when we discover more about the character’s life and upbringing, but the theme of suicide isn’t stated completely or pushed too far.

Dodge, the lead male character in Panic, is driven by a consuming need to avenge his sister, who while playing Panic a few years before was crippled due to foul play. His drive for vengeance comes to the forefront, putting his need for self-preservation on the back burner, making many of his decisions very surprising, shocking, and thoroughly interesting to read.

Natalie, Heather’s attractive, popular and wealthy best friend, is taken advantage of by a much older man. When feeling like she is out of options, she sleeps with him in the hope he will help her become an actress.

Panic is also ‘edgy’ due to its honest detailing of teenage life. In the first few pages Heather remembers being embarrassed when she left a blood stain on her ex-boyfriends sofa during a heavy period. Many of the characters also swear occasionally and very naturally, when it feels necessary and true to both them and the story. Other forms of realistic teenage profanity are sneaked in using slang abbreviations of common place phrases such as ‘WFT.’

Although not classed as a particularly ‘edgy’ read overall, the first instalment of the Divergent trilogy holds many themes considered ‘edgy.’ Tris, the lead protagonist, bravely chooses to leave her home behind in order to live a life she feels is more true to herself. To enter their new community, the thirty or so initiates must jump from the roof of a high building into what seems to be a perilous and deadly pit. Tris jumps first, a decision that is truly fearless, and that earns her the respected title ‘first jumper.’

This courageous personality trait continues on as she battles other initiates to become part of the community she knows she belongs in, but her success makes her a target of envy. At one point in the story she is grabbed by three fellow initiates who attempt to throw her into a deadly chasm of water. But before they throw her over, one of the boys takes advantage of the situation to commit a sexually assault.

A heavy hand gropes along my chest. “You sure you’re sixteen, Stiff? Doesn’t feel like you’re more than twelve.” The other boys laugh.

Bile rises in my throat and I swallow the bitter taste.

“Wait, I think I found something!” His hand squeezes me. I bite my tongue to keep from screaming. More laughter.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

The protagonist, Tris, is unwillingly being touched while two others hold her still—a definite sexual assault—a fact that is never plainly highlighted or commented upon again in the novel, nor was it depicted in anyway when adapted into a film.

If you’re a young adult writer wanting your work to fit into the bracket of ‘edgy,’ don’t merely think up all the relevant themes you can and throw them into your story, because it won’t feel natural. Instead, look at what you already have and push the boundaries a little, with both theme and the actions of your characters. Let every part of your story be as organic as it can be, and if ‘edgy’ themes simply won’t comfortably fit into the mix, don’t force them. Surely it’s better to have a truthful read than a stereotypically ‘edgy’ one.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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