Wednesday, October 18, 2017

5 (Wholesome) Realistic Details to Use in Tween and Teen Fiction by Cynthia T. Toney

I write fiction for tweens and teens, so I read a lot of it, including secular fiction. Contemporary secular fiction for ages 12 to 18 shows a disturbing pattern, and it’s not only an increase in adult language and sexual content. Valuable space is often donated to descriptions of bodily functions. The opening scene of one novel I recently began to read was all about a character’s graphically detailed bowel problem. Novels often describe a problem from the other end, too. This is no way to lift up the beautiful creations by God that our children are. And is this the type of realism that entertains young readers today? I hope not.

But enough about what not to include in building a realistic story world for tweens or teens. Here are five details, sensory and otherwise, that we should include.

1. Embarrassment. Adults experience embarrassment, but it’s a daily occurrence for young people. Anything from their own spoken words (or thoughts) to a smile from a member of the opposite sex can cause them to blush. One instance for my 13-year-old male character, Sal, is when he rushes outside to see a female friend who arrived unexpectedly, and he becomes aware that he’s wearing his pants but only his sleeveless undershirt covering his chest. Probably no one outside his family has ever seen him without a shirt on, especially not a girl!

2. Music. What teenager doesn’t like music? If writing a contemporary novel, an author might want to keep the story evergreen by not naming a specific song title or performer. But do mention a type of music enjoyed. In historical fiction, research popular song titles of the period and have your character listen to a favorite on a phonograph or musical instrument. Sal enjoys listening to his family’s solitary radio, which is new and exciting in a farming community in 1925.

3. Food. If a character eats, what does he eat? Describe an interesting food and a character’s reaction to its smell or taste. In contemporary fiction, a teen in the southwest might be interested in foods common in the northeast. Maybe he’s never eaten lobster or clam chowder and doesn’t even know what it smells like. I describe Italian food in The Other Side of Freedom, including dishes made from the produce of Sal’s family farm, and give Sal’s reactions to his likes and dislikes.

4. School. Yes, even school can be an interesting detail, especially if it’s an unfamiliar type of institution. One of my female characters returns home from a Normal School, which is the name given to schools where girls were educated to become teachers in the early 20th century. Such schools were few and far between in 1925, and she left Louisiana to attend one in Alabama. And remember—at that time, if a girl had the luxury of graduating from high school (at a one-room schoolhouse in a rural area), her age was around 16. Teens might like to know that.

5. Government, Laws. Such a variety exists from country to country and U.S. state to state. Throw in local laws and a different historical time period, and many possibilities arise to incorporate details about government, political leaders, and laws. Just be sure to tie them into your characters’ experience and feelings. Sal reflects on his friend Hiram being named after the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate, and why Hiram’s mother might have named him so. Make the information personal to your characters so that an educational fact doesn’t sound too … educational. J

Do you have any tips to add to Cynthia's?


Cynthia T. Toney writes for tweens and teens because she wants them to know how wonderful, powerful, and valuable God made them. Her novels include The Other Side of Freedom and the Bird Face series, which begins with 8 Notes to a Nobody. Her books include thought-provoking questions for classrooms and book clubs.
Cynthia has a passion for rescuing dogs from animal shelters and enjoys studying the complex history of the friendly southern U.S. from Georgia to Texas, where she resides with her husband and several canines. Get to know her better by visiting