Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Five Most Overused Plot Elements in YA (right now).

There are several plot elements I find acceptable in Young Adult literature. For instance, the parents. The parents have to be dead , absent, oblivious, or--in the case of most YA novels--grossly incompetent. This is so the plot can move forward without there being an adult interference. This is an issue commonly dealt with by authors when writing YA; overcoming this boundary can be difficult.

However, there's a few trends floating out in the choppy waters that are the YA genre right now, and I think they need to be called out.

5. Mentally ill brothers.

Examples: From What I Remember, All These Things I've Done.

Element: Every main character that has a brother, has a younger mentally ill brother.

Truth: Where the fuck did this one come from? In From What I Remember the brother has autism. In All These Things I've Done the brother has a head injury--which is kind of Mice of Men-ish. This gives the female protagonist something to worry about--something to think about. If she isn't worrying, if it isn't interfering with her relationship with Mr. Protagonist, then the character isn't "complicated' enough. Better add a mentally ill brother.

Solution: It's okay to make boy characters that don't need to be cared for or coddled. The brother doesn't have to exist or be present. The female protagonist has enough worries, what with the boy she has to gush over.

4. I need to rescue my brother!

Examples: Blood Red Road.

Element: The heroine is on a quest to rescue her brother (bonus points if he's mentally ill).

Truth: Why is it always the brother these days? I get it. Female characters can rescue boys. Male characters can rescue males (doesn't happen often). But it's always the brother the girl goes storming off after. Along the way she meets Mr. Right and they fall in love. For once, I think, I would like to see her find Mr. Right and then go rescue him. I don't think that's too much to ask for.

Solution: It isn't super important that she rescue anyone. People have traveled across the world for far lesser reasons than to simply "rescue their brother".

3. Super mysterious male characters.

Examples: Divergent, Wanderlust.

Element: The female protagonist needs a mysterious male character to fawn over.

No abs? No tats?
Must be a complete douche.
Truth: The male characters in most YA novels are made intentionally mysterious because they're easy to write. They can be in a band, but be quiet, they can be an a-hole, but there's a reason for it. Add in a splash of mental/physical abuse (or some trauma) and a tattoo; boom, you've got your standard mysterious character found in 90% of YA novels. Oh, and don't forget about the abs. They've gotta have abs.

Solution: The female protagonist doesn't need to fawn over shit. She is not even required to like boys at all. If you can't write a male character, don't write a male character. Stephanie Perkins (Lola and the Boy Next Door ) gets mad props for writing interesting male characters.

2. Destined to be together.

Examples: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight.

Element: The universe needs the two main characters to be together or the world will explode.

Truth: It is not a requirement to make a story with a love plot in it. Love triangles do not need to exist just because they're popular. Romance doesn't need to be complicated.

Solution: Don't write a love plot.

1. World governments/the authorities giving a shit.

Examples: DivergentMatched , The Hunger Games (any and all post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels).

Element: The authorities don't want the lead female protagonist and the lead male protagonist to canoodle. Because two canoodling teenagers will ruin their plans of global domination or subrogation.

Truth: No one gives a shit.

Solution: There isn't one.


In the case of most examples I've listed--I actually enjoyed the books. I don't mind an overused plot element if it's done correctly. There isn't a way around some plot devices, the general idea to not write them; that can be next to impossible. Real people do have mentally ill brothers, real people do have world governments stopping them from being together.

The idea that looks still matter, or that gender roles still matter, is what really bothers me. We can harp on and on and on about how young girls are given unrealistic expectations when it comes to their bodies. But when it comes to boys? Where are we drawing that line? When it comes to love triangles: why not two girls and a boy? And no, not the boy likes both girls, or the girls like the one boy, but the girl can't pick between the boy and the other girl.

These themes--the ones listed above--and the ones listed here in the conclusion are also found in adult literature. So don't go on about "exposing children" to "mature themes". If a kid has seen Sandy Hook footage, he's seen more violence in a news cast than he has a book. If he was in the room when Will & Grace was on? Don't get me started.

If Dumbledore can be gay--if Ron Weasley can be a cool ginger--then anything is possible in 2013.


  1. *Applause*
    Are you going to do a follow-up post to this?

    1. thank you.

      I probably could. I have a few more I could probably point out.

  2. Word. Love triangles make me batty. I kind of liked the "saving brother" except that it's just a lazy fix for the "saving the girl/sister/girl cousin" trope. And the Mysterious Loner Dude -- why does he have to be alone? So you (pretty, awkward, doesn't know she's awesome until MLD comes into her life) can show him what he's missing being all loner and mysterious?

    1. MLD. MLD! I think you just came up with something, Debra.

      I might be working on something right now about this very subject...

    2. I got MLD from Forever Young Adult, a blog that would be right up your alley as they talk about books and booze.

    3. Can you imagine what a story with a MLD and a manic pixie dream girl would be like? I imagine it would basically be a Panic at the Disco video, and I would watch the shit out of it.

  3. I agree that love triangles are totally unnecessary in, say, a dystopian novel. But The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a romance book. That's the point of it. There are lots of teens who are over love triangles, but there are also lots of teens who actually want to read realistic fiction with romance in it.

    1. That's what I was getting at, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is just the example. I actually love that book.

  4. I think that sometimes the world WILL actually explode if the two main characters don't get together. OR MY HEART WILL ACTUALLY BREAK. You say that romance doesn't need to be complicated, but it usually is. Like with Stephanie Perkins and her good I mean interesting and extremely discussable male characters.

    I'd like to hear more about these mysterious guys. And more about these YA trends in general. I think you're onto something here. I like it.

  5. I don't mind the mentally ill brother or rescue the brother. But everything else on the list is pretty annoying.

    Love triangles are hell of annoying. The only time I don't mind love triangles is when it doesn't involve the main character. Love triangles with any side character, I don't really care.

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