On Young Adult Fiction, Formulas, and Fantasy Worlds


Within the last decade, there was a popular television show called ‘House’.  It was a medical mystery drama, and I really enjoyed it, until the day I figured out the formula to it.  “They think three things are it, then House steps in in the last 10 minutes and solves it brilliantly,” I said to my mom.  She admitted that she, too, had lost enjoyment when she figured out the pattern it followed.

Some people say that autistic people see more patterns in life than others.  Some people say that people with non-verbal learning disabilities and dyscalculia see fewer.  Well, I’ve got both, and I do think that I have a tendency to see fewer patterns in life.  I simply do not notice enough visual cues, and my brain is quite random in the way it organizes things.  However, in the last few years I have noticed one formula, one pattern, in things, and quite frankly, it has significantly decreased my enjoyment of what used to be one of my very favorite genres: young adult books.

I’ve always liked young adult books.  When I was a senior in high school and most kids were switching to reading adult novels, I switched to adult non-fiction and kept reading the young adult fiction.  I think it may have something to do with the fact that adult novels usually involve romances which are beyond my current level of understanding and comprehension.  Although intellectually I may be on par with or equal to my peers, my experience in the dating department is sorely lacking, and I simply am not that fascinated by a subject I still do not quite understand.  Many young adult books, however, have the romance on a back burner to the story itself, and they quite often deal with children, who I love reading about.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, in the past few years, young adult fiction has gotten really, really good.  Before ‘Harry Potter’, the pickings were few and far between.  A story like ‘His Dark Materials’ was an anomaly, both in its intended audience and in the age of its protagonists. But as a direct result of the Potter phenomenon, more and more writers were churning out literature aimed at 12-to-18 year olds. Of course, much – may I even say the majority? – of this was utter crud, but there were also some really, really fantastic stories in there.

So along with a steady diet of newspapers, online political commentary, fanfiction, and whatever looks good on the new non-fiction shelf, I’ve been reading quite a lot of young adult, tending towards the fantasy, sci-fi and supernatural stories.  I will admit – I like princess stories.  I like reading about royalty and balls and things that will never exist.  I like dystopias and stories set in outer space and kids with supernatural powers.  I don’t like vampires or zombies, both a very popular theme, but some books are so skillfully done that you don’t realize that the enemies are zombies until halfway through the book.

And then one day I realized: I was reading many different books, but at the same time, I was reading the same book.  Almost every book and every series followed the same, set pattern.  Here it is:

Protagonist A is from one world/class/dimension/place/time.  In a totally random chance meeting or twist of fate, A meets Protagonist B, who is either a boy if A is a girl or vice versa, and who is from another world/class/dimension/place/time.  The differences between the A and B worlds mean that either A or B is significantly wealthier, has better living conditions, food, top of society, may be royalty, has access to power, etc.  A and B fall in love.  There may be a C who is competing for the affections of the female, but by the end of the story he dies (tragically) or conveniently moves away or settles for someone else.  Therefore, even if the female A is in love with both B and C, she never actually has to make a choice which would, of course, break her heart.

A and B are drawn to each other.  They somehow start to subvert their social system and sneak around.  Whoever is from the lower class displays skills and character qualities which make up for their being lower class, and no matter how different their worlds may be, A and B are able to converse easily and on the same intellectual level, as if they had gotten the same amount and quality of schooling.  The upper-world person often faces pressure to marry someone from his own class.  If it is a series, at the end of Book 1, they are happy together and making plans to change the world.  They have various adventures, and the upper-class person gets exposed to what life is like on the ‘other side’, living without the luxuries to which s/he has become accustomed to.  There is a betrayal by some friend or relative.  By the end of book 2, A and B are cruelly and tragically separated, usually as a result of one sacrificing themselves for another’s safety, quite often being captured – and all looks bleak.  In the third book or part of the story, the resistance comes together and the ‘evil’ or upper part of society is significantly changed.  Both A and B will very likely lose their virginity at some point along here. There is a likelihood that the poorer protagonist is secretly royalty, or magical, or comes from a long line of resistance fighters, or is a shapeshifter or something like that.  As a result of this, by the end of book 3, society has changed and A and B are set to be happy together for all ever after.  The End.

It is incredibly depressing how many fantasy, dystopia, and sci-fi books I read that follow that formula.  The few ‘realistic fiction’ young adult books I read follow it to, although it is very much toned down and instead of facing the stratification of society, the protagonists face something like cancer or bullying or being abused.  Some authors try to avoid the formula by mixing things up, like having A and B be lesbians or something, but in the end, it all comes back down to basics.

However.  The fact that I have noticed this formula means that when that formula doesn’t exist, it makes for a really, really, really fantastic book or books.  This is why Harry Potter is so good – it follows no path but its own.  Unfortunately for Harry Potter, although the storytelling is excellent, the actual writing is not really that great.  I’ve read better fanfic.  (I’ve read quite a lot of better fanfic, actually.)

So I keep searching.  And occasionally, I find not just a gem, but a Hope diamond, a marvelous experience both in the story and in the writing.  My favorites by far are Kristin Cashore’s, Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue.  There is nothing – nothing! – formulaic about these books.  Her characters inhabit a world that is so very rich, so very real, that quite frankly I don’t understand why she isn’t feted as much as JK Rowling is.  There is romance, there is drama, there is political intrigue that I can actually understand, there is humor and – and there is this.

“It didn’t occur to me, until it was too late, that I had disabled [character], then given him a magical cure for his disability – thus implying that he couldn’t be a whole person and also be disabled.  I now understand that the magical cure trop is all too common in F/SF writing and is disrespectful to people with disabilities.  My failings here are all my own.”

From the acknowledgments section at the back of the paperback of Bitterblue.

JK Rowling is a millionaire, famous world-wide.  I honestly don’t understand why Kristin Cashore isn’t, too.  I also don’t understand why Cashore hasn’t published any books in the last few years.  I need more stories! Now, please.

And in the meantime – just because a book is formulaic does not mean it won’t be enjoyable.  And seeing as the plows have yet to come through the snow and it looks like I’m in for my third snow day in under a week, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do.


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