Gary Paulsen’s Winning Formula for Writing YA Survival Novels

Winning Formula


A favorite reading genre for teens and young adults is survival novels, and it’s easy to see why. The adventure and suspense of survival stories can put readers on the edge of their seats. And no one does it better than Gary Paulsen, Minnesota author of Newberry Honor book Hatchet and other YA survival novels.

But crafting survival stories that work is no small feat. An avid outdoorsman and former Iditarod racer, Paulsen may have the advantage of knowing firsthand the depths of nature’s harshness. Still, it is his writing technique that brings his stories to life and makes readers yearn for more. How does he do it? By telling it straight – in a poetic sort of way.

Realism Gives Survival Stories Believability

Most survival novels for young adults share two important qualities. First, they involve some type of disaster, like an earthquake, personal crisis, or, in the case of Hatchet, an airplane crash. Second, the main character or characters are faced with a life or death situation and must struggle to survive. But successful survival novels for young adults require another quality – believability.

Readers must be able to envision themselves in the novel’s scenario and wonder what they would do in the same situation. Being able to connect with the main character of the book is key. And this is where Gary Paulsen excels as a writer.

In Hatchet, main character Brian (and virtually the novel’s only character) must learn to survive in the wilderness he knows nothing about. While young adults can empathize with Brian’s anger and fears, they can also relate to (and cheer for) his resourcefulness, determination, and courage. Similarly, in Dogsong, young adults can connect with protagonist Russel, who is unhappy with his life and sets out on a self-searching journey, which tests his ability to deal with harsh reality.

Powerful Prose Engages Readers of YA Survival Novels

Besides believability, strong writing is essential for young adult survival novels to succeed. How authors of YA survival novels write their stories varies, but Gary Paulsen has a formula that works well. He blends emotion with rhythmic, powerful prose, which some critics believe reads like poetry.

In its review of CanyonsSchool Library Journal wrote, “Terse language keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.” But perhaps Publishers Weekly explained Gary Paulsen’s knack for writing survival stories best in describing Hatchet: “Poetic texture and realistic events are combined to create something beyond adventure, a book that plunges readers into the cleft of the protagonist’s experience.”

Realism and strong writing aren’t the only tricks Gary Paulsen has up his sleeve for crafting engaging YA survival novels, though. Other useful tools for his books – and for any writer of survival novels for young adults – include the following:

  • unfamiliar settings
  • well-researched facts
  • an element of danger
  • character growth
  • mysticism or spirituality

Above all, writing survival stories and novels for young adults – like surviving a disaster – takes perseverance and commitment. No one knows that better than Gary Paulsen, who explains on his publisher’s website that he spends “18-, 19-, 20-hour days completely committed to work. Totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work.” It shows.