Being a Cybils judge taught me a few things about writing for YA – many good things and also many things we could be doing better. While I hate writing about the negatives, I think the good things will be easy for us to get our heads around and accept while the negatives are going to taste funny and make some people annoyed with me.
I’ve picked three traits to share with you that quickly drove me bananas and the first one is the most painful for me personally. I read a lot of books back to back very fast and too many of them to count had one (or more) of these three qualities. I think these three qualities make our writing weaker and our readers’ experiences less fantastic. Take it for what it’s worth. I’m not picking on any particular books or authors and many of the books I loved have exhibited at least one of these three traits. I just think we can do better. These are not trends I want to see made into the norm.
Bananas Trend #2: The Lost Climax
Haha, ok, everyone get their giggles out now over my clever title choice. THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS, PEOPLE. We’re talking about story structure and the Book One Prologues of a Trilogy. When your story doesn’t have a climax, it’s sad for everyone.
Since the dawn of time all great stories have been based on a version of the three act structure. Period.
There’s Part I – which is often called Set-up or Introduction.
Then comes Part II – often called Conflict, Ordeal, Development, and Confrontation. Whatever. Sometimes Part II is split into A and B parties. A always seems like things might be ok in the end and B always squashes that adorable notion.
Part III brings up the final Conclusion, Climax, Resolution. Neo finally believes. ET goes home. Dorothy gets back to Kansas. All of these things happen right after tension reaches its fever point and the bad guys get pulverized.
Not everyone believes in the three part act, so let’s simplify it even further.
There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Always.
A Surprising Disappointment
There’s this book that was nominated that I’d had on my Must Read list since it was first announced. The book trailers were to die for and the storyline was unique and interesting. The hype machine was out of this world. You’d have to be living on the moon to not have heard of it. There was a waiting list for a copy from my library 9 people deep and I couldn’t wait to get a review copy from the publisher so I bought my own. That’s how badly I wanted to read it.
And it was good, better than the hype even. I ran around the house and made my BFF and husband listen to me read them multiple excerpts. It took turns I wasn’t expecting but more than anything the way it was written was so smooth the first 200 pages slipped by me while I burned dinner in the oven. Gorgeous prose.
Then something happened. As the pages I had left to read dwindled, I realized I was about to get screwed as a reader. There was going to be no climax. No resolution. This gorgeous book I’d just read had become a very long prologue for the real action to come in Book II.
I was devastated. Two massive forces were crashing into each other at warp speed, love was found and hearts were broken and the whole world seemed to be on the verge of changing before my eyes – but instead of exploding on the page I was being given the literary equivalent of a wink and a nudge as if to say, “See you next year.”
I felt duped. Unsatisfied. Stood up.
Every book needs a THING that can be fought against or for.
The first book in a trilogy is not the prologue. It is not a 300 page set-up for the main events. Each book in a trilogy has a conflict that feeds into each subsequent book. The Harry Potter series does an amazing job of this. Voldemort is out there and must be stopped, but at the same time there are wizarding competitions, escaped Azkaban convicts, horcruxes to find and destroy, evil teaches to avoid and tests to pass. Each book has a THING that must be overcome and sometimes that thing is overcome and sometimes it gets away but the main characters are made stronger and smarter each time and the bad guys get weaker, more desperate, more angry all because the protagonists and the antagonists were given the opportunity to battle it out at the end of a book. Rising tension. Resolution. Questions left unanswered and a hint to those things yet to come in the next book.
Every book needs to feel like the protagonist could fail. Every book needs to feel like the antagonist could win. It is so defeating for a reader to feel like they are safe for two more books because writer needs to drag us to the end of the third book before anything might go awry.