Agent Questions Volume Twelve: 30 Tropes To Be Aware Of When Writing YA

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Question: I write YA. How do I know what to steer away from?

Answer: The following YA tropes

1| Protagonists so full of angst they can’t make a decision on what to wear but the fate of the universe is in their grumpy hands.

2| The Brooding loner that no girl can resist OR perfectly, angellically handsome, and treats everyone like they’re cardboard, yet they all swoon when he walks by…

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3| Overly odd character names and spellings that none of us can pronounce— Kellwynch and Lairkyn and Phinaepoly, oh my!

4| Rebellious princesses–or clumsy princesses–with weapons and skills that beat the evil master, though he invented jousting a hundred years before his hair was white, but he’s afraid of this teen with a prophecy. 

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5| Inauthentic dialogue– overdoing slang, dumbing-down, including trends, preaching moral lessons. Fiction is for escapism, not a self-help forum.

6| Purely evil villains with no motive.  Everyone has a little good in their bad, and that will help the reader relate to and maybe even empathize with him. Which makes a better villian. Maybe it’s even a HER? Whoa.

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7| One dimensional BFF. Give the sidekick an important reason to be in the story. Not just the person they call to tell the reader what’s going on, or drive them around, or be their voice of reason.

8| Surprise royalty or powers. Surprise–you have money, power, and glory. Sorry.

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9| Trilogies. YA books come in threes these days.

10| Love triangles. Is it everyone’s wish to be desired by two or more people? Do we all want to be fought over and have more choices? Of course, and teens are no different. Everyone loves them.

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11| Life changing kisses. Yeah, keep wishing.

12| Insta-love. Maybe love at first sight happens, but most of us have a few questions first…

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13| People are killed for not conforming. We have dystopia on the brain, but with the way the world seems sometimes, are we really that far? But not in every book. If life is that bad, write us an escape from it. Not another death for wearing the color purple.

14| Soul mates without a choice. It used to be the norm when marriages were arranged. People back then probably wrote stories of love and choice. Now that we have it, we want to be given a soul mate again.

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15| Over elaborate plot with a life changing mission. It’s been prophesied since 300 B.C. that a child of golden hair and one green eye would rise above the others and follow the trail of the lost ones, to reclaim the sword of Jerethyn the Great, and then journey to the lost islands of Kamar, to bring back the Jewel of Syrnia, to vanquish the evil witch, who has a spell on the king you just found out was your father. Just … no.

16| Characters built on quirks/stereotypes. She’s an archer. Well, after Katniss, they are all archers. Or the perky best friend with blond curls and heavy set figure, not a threat. Or the prom king/ quarterback/ hottie/ dishwasher/ undercover martial arts champion. Or the nerd with glasses and plaid shirt tucked into khaki’s with a leather belt, and armload of textbooks.

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17| The only makeup the girl wears is lip balm. Two words. Tell us in the first line that she’s a tomboy, and stop trying so hard to make her tough. Strong female, doesn’t exclude the word female. She can kick butt in lipstick and high heels, too.

18| Beautiful girl who thinks she’s ugly until some angsty boy tells her how beautiful she is–now she can do anything!! Real girls find their worth in what other people think of them already. Give them some new ideas of where they might find their value to the world, to society, to their friends, and to their hot crush.

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19| The chosen one— you are the only teen on earth capable of outwitting a league of demons.

20| Strong female protagonist who hates all girly stuff i.e. clothes, crying, makeup, girly actions, she’s a total tomboy with combat skills. And she’s angry. She couldn’t possible know how to handle a sword in a dress. Some demon killed her family and her cat died, WATCH OUT!

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21| Best guy friend ends up being Romeo all along. Imagine that? They do say that a great deal of love is based on familiarity. This one can be sweet, just don’t make her completely oblivious to his charms until the end.

22| The head cheerleader– she used to be the protagonist’s BFF and one incident in the past turned her into a diva and they lost touch. It was probably at a sleepover in the fifth grade when the hero told another girl that she wet the sleeping bag. Now she’s got it in for the poor hero, cue up the villian music! But you’ll never see it coming–or the heart warming make-up scene.

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23| Unqualified teen protagonist succeeding over qualified adults. This one is also a dream of the youth. To be better, smarter, faster, stronger, and more savvy than all skilled adults.

24| Omniscient government that controls everyone. This is the favorite dystopian backdrop for YA fantasies.

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25| NO parents— dead parents (Orphan protagonist), abusive parents (protagonist in foster care), negligent or oblivious parents (protagonist runs around with absentee parents, no curfew, no one to call if they leave town).

26| Super rich teenagers with race cars and live alone in mansions. Geez, hot, sixteen, parentless, and already driving a Ferrari and carrying a wad of cash? Lucky you. You must be fictional.

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27| Hero’s journey– hero has problem, sets out to solve it but messes it up, messes up again, this time the protagonist’s fault, hero gives up, has a realization, an explaining mentor fills in plot holes and encourages hero, adventure road trip with 3 trials/terrors, and a face-off, but the hero wins. It’s a common storyline in many books. See how much you can inject while still keeping the structure.

28| Mary Sue/Gary Stu–a protagonist who has very high standards, always tries to do the right thing; when the villain endangers their loved ones, they sacrifice themselves to save everyone without a thought; they won’t intentionally kill, won’t choose one life over another, won’t let someone harm themselves, won’t leave anyone behind, and thinks villain is likewise honest. Which will get them caught, but don’t worry they’re a Jiu Jitsu master.

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29| Hero refuses to fight in an uncomfortable world, intervention by mentor changes their mind, they overcome fear, hero faces the ordeal, gets ready to fight (weapons training), wins the reward (love), there is chase scene on the road back home, hero saves the day. This happens even when it’s not a Hero’s Journey. This storyline is so prevalent, it’s hard to pick up YA without this framework, especially in fantasy.

30| Hero wins via a magical talisman. The villain has the power, they’ve won the final battle, the hero’s family has been sacrificed, the city is on fire, the army is dead, the hero drank the poison and all is lost… but wait! What’s that on the ground in the shadowy corner? It’s the magic amulet that cancels all the villain’s magic. The hero picks it up and stands. While the villain is shriveling on the floor, the magic talisman purges the poison, heals the sidekick, brings the people back to life and restores balance in the universe. Whew. Sure glad we found THAT in the nick of time! Don’t be predictable, but don’t make the answer something you pulled out of a hat and could never happen. Don’t make it too convenient and effortless for the hero.

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Can you think of more? Add them in the comments below…

Have a great day!

~jenn

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