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.
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.
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?