Select Page

In a lot of YA books, the sexy love interest has captivating magical powers over mortal women. But for some reason, they don’t work on the protagonist. She’s immune. He can hear everybody’s thoughts… but hers. She’s a mystery, a puzzle, that drives him crazy, because he can’t figure her out.

This is often the basis for his attraction to her. Echoes of this permeate through the romance genre, where he “looks at her like a puzzle he can’t figure out” or even “you’re not like other girls.” The protagonist is unusual, special, intriguing, unexpected. It’s that scrutiny and attention, being seen, being watched, that heightens the erotic tension. This is a motif, trope or cliché, which could be used in a thousand different ways, but its inclusion is shorthand – immediately familiar to readers – and if it’s overused, it’s because it’s so effective.

Another simple one is a smirk: love interests are often shown as infuriatingly handsome and cocky. A smirk is a facial expression that communicates this confident, teasing personality. You can easily let readers know who the love interest is by having him toss out a devastating smirk early on.

The trope of a guy leaning against the wall is so common it’s become a Japanese meme. Kabe-Don (Kabe, “wall”, and Don, “bang”) refers to the action of slapping a wall fiercely. It’s commonly used to heighten romantic tension.

In any kind of YA, parentage is important. Usually one or both parents are missing – assumed dead. Later we may discover they aren’t really dead. They are in prison; or they are the enemy; or something else happened. The protagonist finds out that through her parents she is irrevocably tied to the core plot. Her father started this. Her mother is the villain. She inherited powers through one of them. Maybe we find out that her parents aren’t really her parents, and her new boyfriend is actually her brother. Dealing with these revelations is part of the character coming to grips with her new self.

See if you can map out a generic summary of a potential story that includes popular elements in a unique way. Here are a couple of mine. Can you think of any stories they fit?

A very shy girl. Her only friend is a guy but she doesn’t like him like that. She stands in front of a mirror and notices her flaw, something she hates about herself. Her parents are gone and she lives with a relative or adopted family. In the first chapter, she goes to a party or concert and meets a guy. He’s the hottest guy she’s ever seen. She’s instantly smitten by him. He’s so cool he’d never notice her… but he does. He even comes straight up to her and accuses her of something or mistakes her for someone else. At first he is hostile and rude. Then he’s cold and dismissive, or maybe cruelly flirtatious. After that incident, things slow down and we learn more about her. Maybe there’s something strange about her she can’t explain. Maybe she has mysterious powers that she’s learned to live with and keep a secret. She doesn’t know why she has them. She thinks it just makes her strange and abnormal. But then she sees the guy again – they keep running into each other, and they have a powerful response. She can’t stop thinking about him. They seem to have a special, magical connection which usually leaves her flustered and confused. He gazes at her like she’s a puzzle he can’t figure out. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t know who she is and what she’s capable of. Her powers grow and she’s probably in danger, both from accidentally hurting others and from someone who’s hunting her. The hot guy finally reveals to her what he is, why they have a connection, and why she’s in danger…

Here’s another:

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 her 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 dark haired jerk, one is blond and kind. 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 (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.

When I started writing dystopian, I was frustrated to discover that the books I’d been writing weren’t in line with the most popular books in the genre. While my novels flirted with apocalyptic intrigue (the stakes are high enough that failure could mean the end of civilization), they all start from the Ordinary World.

That means my books are going to be a little bit slower. I’ll have to work harder to add in some early intrigue. I’ll have to work harder to establish the narrator’s voice and personality. And also show her develop in a satisfying way. In postapocalyptic dystopian novels, the lead characters can start off already dead and broken and hopeless, just trying to survive. But they find hope and meaning in their love for each other. That’s a simple plot. And it’s exciting. Start with the action. The first scenes can be gore and violence. The author doesn’t need to show heartbreak.

In my novels, I’ll have to introduce a current or past event that makes them afraid, distrustful, uncertain… afraid to love. I’ll have to throw a lot of big challenges their way, to force them to become the strong characters I need them to be by the end.

I can’t rewrite the novels I’ve already completed, but I’ve since realized my in-between books aren’t quite what readers expect, desire or respond to. I’m missing the elements that define the genre. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, but without the expected components, I have to work much harder to keep readers enthralled in my story. In future books, I’ll be more careful to write a story that features the best elements readers love.

Tyrant: A dystopian needs a tyrant, an oppressive government/society without freedom. A place with no hope. Cruel and unjust. A secret conspiracy.

Complacency: Nobody is happy… but they don’t rebel. They walk the line. They don’t have a leader.

Violence: Probably involving teens and kids with guns, and death and gore.

Inciting Event: The protagonist gets forced onto a path of action that’s impossible for her to refuse. She does the best she can. It may involve sacrificing herself to save someone she loves (a family member).

Love interest (x2): There’s usually at least 2 main love interests.

There’s a lost guy, she gives him meaning and purpose.
He wants to save and protect her. She wants to be strong and pushes him away. They fight because she refuses to accept help. He can be controlling and overprotective. He’s dark and secretive.

The other guy is happy, confident, funny and friendly. She should like him. He likes her, but she doesn’t feel that way about him. This other guy may turn out to be the bad guy. She has mixed feelings; because she does like him a little. Maybe they kiss. Maybe she’s attracted to him.

A revolution: she becomes a revolutionary hero, and leads an uprising. Her role is more important than sorting out her relationships, so she stalls on that front and ignores her feelings. She won’t let herself be happy until her people are free.

She feels bad about killing, at first, but gets better at it.

A more extensive list might look like this:

  • A structured society with class conflict
  • Second class citizens/slaves
  • Feelings or authenticity is outlawed (emotional repression)
  • Testing or trials used to define and position
  • A choosing or placement ceremony
  • Being an outlaw, getting jailed or executed for existing
  • Can’t choose how to love or marry
  • No control over own life
  • Social statuses can be changed suddenly or hacked
  • Fancy party with fancy dress
  • Rich, powerful guy takes interest in her
  • Strong, handsome guy likes her (main love interest). He’s tough and mean to everyone but her. He saves her/protects her… but they clash at the beginning “I don’t need you to protect me!”
  • Devious, fanatical villain with personal vendetta
  • A class of enforcers who hunt down nonconformers (her parents might be one). She might be one too, until she’s fallen and becomes hunted herself.
  • A cruel mother who abandons her, or a weak father who doesn’t protect
  • Ungrateful siblings she needs to support
  • She must break the law or risk bending the rules to protect her family
  • Revolution/rebellion is already brewing, but they need a symbol
  • She’s already practically trained, efficient, competent (she’s had to be)
  • Might be an assassin, thief or hunter
  • War, soldiers, or big monsters (something wild and dangerous that is hunting them).
  • A secret that could destroy everything
  • A special child, chosen one that was lost (might be her)

If you took out the “dystopian” part, but kept the YA – you’d still get the love interests. Instead of a tyrant, you’d have an evil force or power – she has something he wants. She’s the only one who can stop him. She discovers she has powers; powers that are mysteriously and abnormally strong.

If you’ve already read Book Craft – you may have noticed (like I just did!) that in fact I did not mention “Kabe-Don” earlier because it was in this section and I took it out. 🙂 I’ll add it back in soon.