Saturday, February 16, 2013

Teen Angst: Much Ado About Nothing

In my experience, many adult readers who turn their noses up at YA novels tend to think that these books for teens comprise entirely of angst driven melodrama. What's wrong with that? Thinking back to my teen years, I experienced a lot of angst, so what's wrong with writing that into a novel about teens for teens?

First of all let's define angst.

The word comes from existentialist Kierkegaard, used to describe an emotional state including unhappiness, anxiety and depression. Today, this concept is dubbed teen angst, indicating the emotional turmoil teens tend to experience as a result of changing brain chemistry.

Angst is real and it's fine to have angsty characters in YA - it wouldn't be realistic without all that emotional turbulence - but angst as a plot device, as a substitute for drama, isn't going to go down well with YA readers, considering 55% of those readers are actually adults.

Here's an example of angst as plot device:

The teen girl MC is in love with the dreamy boy and their romance is in the infant stages. Our MC sees the boy after school with his arm around another girl. Our MC assumes the worst. She goes up to the boy, maybe even slaps his face, calls him a dirty lying cheater and storms off in tears before giving him a chance to explain that the girl is his sister/cousin and therefore not a threat. Our MC now ignores the boy's phone calls, refuses to talk to him, continues to think the worst and makes a string of bad decisions based on a non-existent issue, which the author calls plot.

This is not drama, this is not conflict. This is a silly girl creating problems when none exist and the story can quickly spiral into melodrama where melodrama is sensational dramatic conflict that fails to observe the laws of cause and effect and generally blows things out of proportion.

When I was 16, the slightest issues felt like the end of the world so melodrama can be the teenage norm. However, reading a book where the plot is driven by imagined circumstances constantly blown out of proportion will sooner have me flinging the book across the room than sympathising with the teen MC who has fallen victim to her underdeveloped parietal lobe.

So what do you think about angst in YA? Were/are you an angsty teen?


  1. Wow. That example looks almost identical to the plot of a book I read a while back, except the girl was his tutor.

    I also made a big deal about minor issues when I was younger and let them weigh me down. Although I could relate a bit, the overreactions of main characters make me lose a ton of respect for them and frustrate me to no end.

  2. I wasn't angsty as a teen, but I knew a lot of people who were. So I don't see any reason why books geared for that market might have those kinds of elements in them.

    In fact, it's one of my pet-peeves when "older" readers look sideways at kid-lit (YA or MG) as if it's bellow them. A very silly way to look at literature, if you ask me. I can get lost in a Dr. Seuss book, or the latest book by Khaled Hosseini. Any notion that one is above the other is purely personal.