Cliches to Avoid when Writing YA Fiction

If you read enough YA fiction, you’ll find certain characters or plot devices repeating themselves. Here are a few cliches to avoid when writing YA fiction.

All the adults are mean and/or stupid.

All the characters in a book should have an understandable motive for how they act. In YA fiction, the adult characters should be as well developed as the teen ones. If the father of the main character is cruel to him, the author must provide a reason other than it’s convenient for the plot. If the parents don’t know what their teens are up to, it shouldn’t be because they are too stupid to realize their kids are getting into trouble. When I come across adult characters who are too mean or dumb to be believable, I close the book.

The importance of exploring character motivation was brought home to me by my friend, author Cindy Thomson. With both your major or minor character, she said I needed to keeping asking why characters act the way they do. I think this is especially important when developing a villain or developing a flaw for a character. Her motivation to do bad things can’t simply be because she’s bad.

Private Schools

Another cliche to avoid when writing YA fiction is the private school. In YA book after YA book, I find this setting. In Christian fiction, it’s often a private Christian high school. A variation is for a kid in a private school to lose her money and be forced to attend a public school. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think most American teens never attend a private school, certainly very few attend a private high school. My kids don’t. The teens in my church don’t.

When I was in junior high, I read a short story about a boy who cheats during a test at a private school. (The main character’s name is P.S. If you recognize the short story, let me know. I’m curious to reread it). The whole story puzzled me then because the setting and his problem seemed so far removed from my life. If I remember correctly, he was expelled, he and his father had some kind of breakthrough in their relationship, and he would be sent to another private school. The consequences didn’t seem all that bad to me.

I see some advantages of this setting. The teens have less oversight if they board at a private school, giving the author more room to get them into trouble. It’s also an easy way to employ the fish-out-of-water plot: poor, deserving teen wins a scholarship to snooty private school and is set upon by rich brats.

Authors can use this setting well. It was especially effective in the novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks . But new authors should find other ways to get their characters into trouble or throw them into uncomfortable situations. The private school is growing old. And I think readers would appreciate seeing characters in a setting more familiar to them.

Hospital Denouement

I’ve found this scene in many YA books across several genres. The hero survives the thrilling climax, suffering injuries that usually causes him to pass out at the end of it. In the next chapter, he’s in the hospital, waking up after being unconscious for several days. A friend or relative is at his bedside and explains to him everything he’s missed, nicely wrapping up the ending for both the reader and the hero.

This technique goes all the way back to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, one of the granddaddy’s of young adult fiction. Like the private school, I understand this is a handy plot device. An author can work in a lot of explanation without worrying about “showing vs. telling” because it makes sense for one character to inform the hero since he’s been out of the action for awhile. It’s a time- and page-saving device.

So it’s not bad. Just overused. I almost employed it when writing my denouement for my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow. I was trying to write a hospital scene, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It hit me that I’d read this kind of scene many, many times before. So I eliminated the setting and created another one for my wrap-up.

This post is an update of a previous one. For for more tips on writing YA fiction, click here.

What are some cliches you’re tired of reading in YA fiction?

Why I Love Short Stories

I don’t remember when I fell in love with short stories. Must have been early, in junior high or high school. As a mystery fan, I know mysteries have a long, proud short story tradition–the first mysteries were short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes but fifty-six short stories. I discovered Ray Bradbury short stories at my first library job. After so many years of reading this literary form, I can give you four reasons why I love short stories.

Quick Satisfaction

I read for pleasure at night to help me get sleepy. Short stories allow me to enjoy a complete story in one or two sitting. Since I’ve had kids, I find it much more difficult to finish a novel. If I really like it, I have to sneak in reading time at other points during the day besides bedtime, and ultimately, I grow frustrated.

Sampling New Authors and Genres

When I long for something new to read, I pick up anthologies. I can sample a variety of authors in a short amount of time. If I like a particular author’s story, I’ll seek out his other works, including novels. If I need a break from mysteries, I’m more willing to try a different genre in short story form because it’s less of a commitment. I enjoy reading fantasy and sci-fi in short stories because I don’t enjoy novel with world-building so complicated I need to take notes. Short stories allow me to dip into a fantasy world without drowning in details.

Immersive Reading

I find it easier to get lost in a short story than a novel. Maybe it’s because a short story often takes place in one setting and is told from one point of view. Novels can achieve this too. One of the reason that Watership Down is a favorite novel of mine is because author Richard Adams does such a marvelous job of making the English countryside come alive. But I think it’s harder to do this in novels because they have more plot to keep moving. The short length of short stories actually works in their favor by forcing writers to zero in on settings and characters and to make every word work double, triple, or quadruple duty.

Twist Endings

If there’s one literary technique short stories do better than novels, it’s the twist ending. Again, I think it has to do with the length. On April Fool’s Day, a person doesn’t mind being tricked for a few minutes. But if the joker keeps it up until the end of the day, the victim will feel stupid and conned. Finding a twist ending at the end of a short story seems appropriate after I invest only an hour to it. But if I spend days with a novel, only to have all my conceptions upended, I’ll most likely feel cheated.

Novels can do the twist ending well. Agatha Christie pulled it off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I just think it’s much harder to keep the truth hidden from readers for hundreds of pages instead of fifty and not have them feel like they’ve been scammed.

Which do you prefer—short stories or novels and why?

Adding Humor to Enhance Drama

As I finished writing my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” in 2018, I faced a dilemma. My main character Rae has found her father. How did I write the scene without drowning it in gooey sentiment? I learned adding humor to enhance drama prevented this from happening.

I knew I had to go for the big emotions. In the first draft, I had tried to write the story by playing it safe, keeping the emotions at a distance. That version felt empty, and readers would feel cheated. But if I wallowed in all he feelings the father-daugher reunion required, I risked turning my mystery into a soap opera.

Humor to the Rescue

After toying with the scene, I realized humor could keep the emotions from veering into high school drama queen territory. That sounds counterintuitive. How can humor make a dramatic scene better rather the undercut it? I think it works like combining salty and sweet, like salty caramel. The sugar and salt seem to be opposites and yet the contrast makes both flavors stand out.

So as Rae experiences the thrill of finding her father, he’s trying desperately to hold himself together and not pass out from the shock. The humor allows the drama to go big but prevents it from getting out of control.

Keys to Adding Humor to Drama

The first key is to establish the tone of your story. Rae has made humors observations throughout my story, so the tone that isn’t deadly serious even if the mystery is. Readers don’t think it’s out of place to find something to smile or laugh about in the story. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve watched scenes in shows or read them in books that are very serious and humor still works in them.

Years ago, I watched an episode of the western TV series, Gunsmoke. Marshal Matt Dillon and several women are traveling through a desert when outlaws begin following them and mounting attacks. The outlaw leader tells his men before the latest attack that “No one lives.” But when the outlaws close in, the marshal and the women repel the attack, and the outlaws scramble for their lives. Back at their camp, one outlaw, spitting mad, throws down his hat, turns to the leader, and demands, “‘No one lives?’ Us or them?”

The remark was so unexpected in this serious drama in which the heroes are struggling to survive a hostile setting and merciless enemies that I almost busted a gut with a laugh. But it worked because of the second key to adding humor to enhance drama: root the humor in the personality of the characters.

It made perfect sense for this character to say that line because of the situation he was in and the way he said it. I can add humor to any scene if I’ve already established that a particular character would say or act in a humorous way.

For more of my posts about humor writing, click here.

Do you think humor can enhance drama? What have you read or watched where this technique worked?

When Writers Make Elements Work Double Duty

In a short story, it’s critical for every element to pull its weight. Every character, setting, and plot point must be employed for maximum effect. There’s no room for imprecise descriptions or dialogue that rambles. But even better is when writers make elements work double duty. If you are skilled enough to make them put in triple or quadruple duty, go for it.

What Is Double Duty?

I learned this concept from the excellent book by Ron Rozelle, Setting and Description. Double duty is when an element does more that it’s obvious assignment. When the main character describes a scene, the point of his description is to give cues for readers to imagine. But I can also convey something about the main character in the way he or she describes it.

For example, the main character is describing the arrival of students at a school in the morning.

The bell rang, and the buses flung open their doors. Kids poured out, laughing, chatting, hurrying for the glass doors to the middle school. The rising pink sun caught angles of the glass, making them sparkle, and threw brilliant shafts across the dusty red bricks. I shouldered my backpack and rushed ahead.

I haven’t said anything about the character describing this scene, but the description helps readers form an image of the person doing the describing. Here’s another way to look at this scene.

The bell screamed, and the buses vomited students. Kids talked frantically, like they had to get all their words about before the glass doors of the middle school locked them in. The rising red sun speared blinding light through the glass, highlighting every crack in the tired bricks. Bending under the weight of my backpack, I trudged at the end of the line.

Other Ways to Work in Double Duty

Dialogue reveals character. The way a character talks can reveal as much as what he says. For example, a characters that starts most sentences with “I” shows something about his personality.

Character reveals plot. A plot point can move the story forward as well as show something about a character’s personality. If the town gossip gets killed because she spread a story that was detrimental to the murderer, then that flaw in her character aids the plot.

Names reveal character. If your main character nicknames people, those nicknames shows something about both the receiver and the giver of them.

If you’ve written a short story, what tips can you offer? Or what are some of your favorite short stories?

How to Write a Ten Thousand-Word Short Story in Two Weeks and Not Lose Your Mind

The best advice I can give you for writing a short story is summed up in this article I wrote for a few guest blogs when my YA mystery released in 2019. I’ve never published it on my site before, so I hope it offers you some help on how to write a ten thousand-word short story in two weeks and not lose your mind.

In December 2018, I was faced with creating a short story that actually made sense in two weeks. While I got ready for Christmas, taught Sunday School, and prepared for a visit from my in-laws. And I don’t write fast. It took me years to get my YA crime novel in shape.

But I decided to go for it. I met the deadline, wrote a 10,000 word short story, got accepted, and my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, was published in Christmas Fiction Off the Beaten Path. Along the way, I learned some very important lessons about writing under pressure.

Know your theme and ending before you start.

I wasted one whole day because I wasn’t sure what the theme and ending of my story was. I wrote fourteen pages that were pretty much worthless. Once I knew the theme and how it would end, I directed all my efforts to reaching that conclusion. If my writing seemed to veer off course, knowing where I needed to end up got me back on track.

Write a synopsis.

“A Rose from the Ashes” is about nineteen-year-old Rae Riley investigating who tried to kill her pregnant mother twenty years before and if the attacker is the father she’s never met. Because my mystery hinges on a twenty-year-old cold case, I wrote out exactly what happened, like book report. Then I could keep straight what Rae knew and what she had to discover.

Tell your story to someone.

After I’d wasted a day, I sat down with my husband and told him my story. I am blessed to be married to an engineer. He looks at my plots logically, which is so important when writing a mystery. He was able to tell me what made sense and what I needed to work on.

Write the basic story.

My first draft was getting down on paper the bare bones of the story. If inspiration hit for a description, I threw that in, but the point wasn’t to write well. I just wanted to write the story from beginning to end and see how it hung together.

Rewrite with description

After I got down the basic story with the basic plot, I rewrote it with the idea of adding descriptions, both for characters and settings. I did this several times because each time I read through the story, I saw places that needed fleshing out.

Ask readers, not writers, to read your story

Writers read a story differently than non-writers. Writers usually read with their professional hats on, diving into all the technicalities of the writing craft. While I needed to put my story under that kind of scrutiny later, what I needed first was how my story appealed to regular readers, who read simply for enjoyment. I have a good friend and several relatives who love mysteries. I asked them to read my story for things that didn’t make sense or made them pause. Two of my sisters read a description they took for an insult. That wasn’t my intent at all and completely changed the nature of a character. So I changed the description.

Get a handle on your main character.

This should probably be #4, but I didn’t get around to it until late in the process. I wrote the story in first person. My mind was so deeply rooted into my main character that I didn’t realize I wasn’t putting all those thoughts and feelings on the page. After several drafts, I realized Rae was the sketchiest of all the major characters. I needed to get a handle on her, a way to sum her up. I enjoy photography and thought amateur photographer was a good way to describe Rae. It covered how she responded to settings and saw the people around her.

Have you faced a tight writing deadline? What lessons did you learn?

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