I’ve made it no secret that I’m writing YA literature based on a template. Yes, a lot of YA is formulaic. Yes, there are some tropes that get annoying when they’re repeated. And you don’t want to annoy readers.
However, I maintain that writers shouldn’t just try to avoid all cliches. Writing popular fiction, like crafting any powerful story, is based on fundamentals of story construction that go back thousands of years.
Books need conflict. And a lot of bestselling young adult fiction really aren’t that innovative. They’re the same old stories, but retold in a fresh way. I want to give young adult readers what they’ve come to expect of the genre, while delighting or surprising them by remixing common themes in a way they haven’t seen before.
So it’s a little annoying to have all my future works criticized (as I know they will be) for merely having a “love triangle.” It’s as if a love triangle is a superficial thing, incidental to the story, that can easily be removed.
Most of the time, it isn’t. Because stories are built on character, not just plot events. In just about every cop show, ever, there’s a girl and a guy in a platonic working relationship. That’s so each of them can have multiple other partners, which opens up more plot events. In young adult fiction, the number is usually three. In my estimation, it’s because you need a representative of two warring races/classes, and a hero who is the medium between them. It allows for maximal conflict.
Sometimes the heroine is a girl. In The 100, (if you’ve been watching season three) Clark is sort of split between Bellamy, who represents the SkyCrew, and Lexa, who represents the grounders. She needs to make peace between them.
In the Shannara Chronicles, Amberle is a princess elf, the last of her kind. Wil is a halfblood. He alone has the power to use a magic weapon. Eretria is a human orphan with a mysterious background. She has visions and “her blood is the key.”
In Shades of Blue, Jennifer xxx plays a dirty cop, pinned between an FBI agent who is trying to bring down her ring leader, and Wozniac. Neither, incidentally, is her love interest – she’s actually banging the lawyer who can keep her violent ex locked up for good. So sex isn’t necessarily part of the “love triangle” at all – although there’s something creepy and sexual brewing between her and the FBI agent, Wozniac is more like a father figure to her.
Yes there is some romance and dramatic tension happening between all the characters, which keeps things interesting, but they’re really not that important compared to the racial warfare happening around them.
So I find it a little flippant to discount any book since Twilight with the complaint that it has a “love triangle” anytime there are three main characters representing necessarily diverse points of view. The conflict shouldn’t just stem from petty jealousy, but the fear, distrust, hatred and desire should be structured around the more important stuff that has calamitous consequences for everyone else.
Twilight is an excellent book, because it did the love triangle well. Which is exactly why I think the phrase “love triangle” needs to be assigned a new definition. As is, it has come to represent amazing, well told stories that should not be discounted out of hand – where the alleged love triangle is really a necessary and interesting center of conflict between three major players.
This is simply good construction.
Love Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Peace, War, or aligning with either team.
It’s not fair to say, “Oh look, there are three characters, that must be heading towards a love triangle because they’re there” and then discrediting the book for that reason. If a book has a romantic interest flippantly, for no reason at all, which isn’t connected to the larger circumstances, then yes, that should be criticized. But that’s bad writing. It has nothing to do with the love triangle.
And I hate comments like “the love triangle was well done” or “poorly done”. Not everything is a fucking love triangle. If a girl has a love interest and another friend who likes her, but she doesn’t like him back in that way, is it still a love triangle? If she finds out one is her brother? If he’s actually an assassin sent to kill her or a prince in disguise? The story matters, not how many main characters there or how they feel about each other or whether they’re male or female and might develop feelings for each other.
Readers, stop hunting for love triangles and enjoy the story. If it’s poorly told, say so. Don’t discount it out of hand because some other critic says there’s a love triangle in there.
Authors, don’t avoid love triangles just because you think readers are sick of them; and don’t write them just because you think readers want them. Write what’s necessary to tell a great story, fill it with as much conflict as possible, and do things that readers have never seen before.
You’ll see this in a lot of YA fiction, TV series, etc – it’s easy and effective.
It’s the “hunt for the missing family member.”
One of the main characters has missing parents, or a mother or father, or a big brother or sister, or younger sibling that has gone missing. Maybe even an uncle (although uncles generally turn out to be the bad guy).
It’s easy to introduce and explain, and justifies having good, smart characters make stupid decisions. You need conflict, and the plot should be character driven, which means your characters sometimes need to do stupid, desperate things that aren’t very safe.
Why would they risk it?
Why would they press on when their friends tell them to stop?
Why would they throw their life and current relationships away?
To find the truth.
This is Mulder chasing his abducted sister.
It not only helps us understand the character’s devotion to the cause, it also helps give the character a motivation to take deliberate, if reckless, action, without losing the sympathy of the reader, which makes it very effective.
Strangely, so far in most of my fiction, I haven’t used this technique, which is a mistake. Most of my characters are only children. Nobody goes missing. They don’t have a burning quest to find them. My characters are usually motivated by external opposition and trying to protect loved ones.
But this doesn’t have to be used by a main character – maybe you need a marginal character or friend to do something to jumpstart the plot into action at the right time… the “missing relative” gives them a reason to do so which is honorable, without turning them into a bad guy.
I’ve written several posts about how to write YA, but let’s just talk about the intro. In the majority of YA books (maybe half), the protagonist has to move and start a new school.
The first day goes like this:
- New friend explains the rules
- Hot guy who she’s warned to stay away from
- Embarrassing moment
- Probably a bully who makes fun of her
- Something mysterious or unexplained happens
She probably feels overwhelmed or all alone, someone shows her kindness, later she infiltrates the “cool crowd” – those standoffish, secretive kids who all look like supermodels.
She learns she has secret powers, that her parents were probably ass-kicking members of a secret, supernatural group, and that she is the key to everything – if she can learn to control her powers.
There’s another guy, who’s probably blonde, who is nice and funny but she’s just not into him. She obsesses about the other guy, the hot guy with shaggy dark hair, who is always brooding or looking at her like a puzzle he needs to solve. She finally hooks up with him (even if he starts with a girlfriend) after they have a few arguments.
There’s a bad guy, who wants something she has (or something she can find; or something her parents stole… or he just wants her for her abilities) and he’s probably trying to take over the world.
He offers her the one thing she wants more than anything, but she would have to betray her new friends so she turns him down.
This giveaway has ended, and the winner was Kimberly Brady Lake. However, since it’s the holidays, I’m also giving a book lamp to 10 runner-ups, to reward some of you who got a lot of entries but didn’t win.
Looking for YA Book Bloggers
I’m building up several group blogs and would love your help. The advantage of working with lots of other book reviewers is that together you can create much more content, and bring in more traffic, which is good for everybody.
Click here to learn more…
I’ll probably do another giveaway this month to clean out my bookshelf; it will be a mix of random YA books I collected this year. In January we’ll head back to Taiwan.
If you want to make sure you hear about the next giveaway, make sure to sign up on the list here:
Join the list for free books!
These were the prizes…
There’s a big choosing ceremony or event coming up.
It might be a wedding even.
Whatever it is, the main character has no freedom to choose her own destiny.
She might rebel or run away.
Or something else unexpected happens.
Whether or not the ceremony goes through, after the ceremony life is completely different.
She’s left he family and is learning new skills and facing new challenges.
She’s special: if not a princess already, she finds out that her mother or father (who she’s been lied to about) was actually important and powerful. Now she feels like she has to make them proud and live up to their memory.
She discovers that she has powers – powers she shouldn’t even have.
Nobody understands her. People are afraid of her.
In the meantime there are two boys in her orbit.
One is a jerk, the other is kind.
One is dark haired, one is light haired.
They usually have breathtaking blue or green eyes.
One is poor, one is rich.
One turns out to be a prince, the other turns out to be an assassin (aka, a bad guy – in opposition to her own goals and wants).
OR they could be brothers.
Or best friends.
Her feelings for each change as she deals with new revelations.
Ultimately, she learns to control her powers, and begins fighting back.
But all her plans fail, she’s captured and discovered, and held captive at the mercy of the villain.
She escapes certain death, defeats her enemies (for now – but not for good) and finds a safe place to regroup.
How close is your book to this plot?
Every bestselling YA book I’ve read in the past 5 years has been at least a 75% match. If you’re writing something completely new and different, with none of these elements, it probably won’t be a smash hit.
I know quite a bit about story, and I want my YA novels to overdeliver on reader expectations. Most authors would say, avoid tropes and cliches and give readers something fresh.
That rarely works in popular fiction.
Or entertainment of any kind. I’m watching the Goosebumps movie right now. It’s a meta-story, about lots of other stories, but the entire thing is still constructed based on classical story architecture; something YA fiction is remarkably consistent about. Other genres can stray towards more innovative plotting.
YA fiction uses tropes. The Goosebumps movie has to introduce all these tropes quickly, while being chased by monsters. There’s a lot of similarity between my books and The Goosebumps movie, but I wanted to make a checklist before I forget.
- Protagonist moves to new town.
- Mother or father is missing.
- Meets a boy or girl next door with a secret.
- The boy/girl has a luxurious house that looks like a mansion.
- They explore someplace fabulous/get taken to a magical place.
- There’s a goofy sidekick for comic relief.
- There’s a disapproving and scary mother or father that’s controlling (but turns out to be not so bad).
- There’s an antagonist who plans to cause chaos and hurt people, who must be stopped.
- There’s a MacGuffin (something they need to do – in the Goosebumps movie, they must find the RIGHT typewriter before Stine can write a new story and recapture the monsters.
- They are being chased, but stop for little flirty moments. Accidentally brush up against each other, flirt, but then something scary happens and they’re interrupted.
- The girl/boy has a supernatural secret, there’s something different about them. The hero finds out and is surprised.
- They have to go on a journey (through a cemetery).
- Big confrontation in public, at a school dance, when everybody else can see how awesome they are, and that only they (the weirdo misfits) can save everyone.
- Moments of heroic self-sacrifice for the person you love.
- The plan you thought would work gets foiled by the enemy, and they run.
- Everyone else finds out that the girl/boy is a freak. “Yes, I know, but I don’t care,” says the hero.
- They distract the enemy with a decoy and trap. They win a battle and celebrate, but the main antagonist survives.
- The return to that special, magical world before, but now it’s overrun with monsters and violence.
- The “passing the baton” scene, where a veteran monster-killer hands the main weapon off the the new hero and tells him to finish the story.
- The “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene, where the hero faces his darkest fears and is helpless.
- The hero realizes that, to save the world/accomplish his mission, he has to give up the Thing He Wants (probably the new love interest). “Maybe if I hold on tight enough-” “You have to let go.”
- They win… but the hero/love interest dies. The price of victory was the hero’s happiness.
- The hero/love interest comes back; the hero is happy and fulfilled.
- Ends with a twist; the hint that the story isn’t over, that some new villain is out there.