By Grace VanKirk
How many tropes does it take to ruin a book? A trope is a plot device, theme, character arc, or other storytelling element that has become formulaic through repeated use. While tropes are useful to define the characteristics of a genre, they can also become tired and overused. When this happens, readers know what to expect and lose interest. And so, for that matter, do literary agents.
The job of literary agents is to represent an author and their work to a publishing company in hopes of landing a book deal. Because book publishing is a passion-driven industry, it is crucial that literary agents love the books they promote. Tropes, however, can derail their interest. For this reason, it is necessary to write a new take on old tropes and keep readers—and literary agents—intrigued.
Tropes are particularly rampant in YA literature. Aside from the obvious tropes of the chosen one, the dark lord, and the love triangle, there are numerous other tropes that plague YA novels. From general tropes to tropes specific to a particular subgenre, here are 7 YA tropes that bore literary agents.
YA tropes that bore literary agents
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1. Strong female character trope
The strong female character trope arose from the call for strong women in literature. Unfortunately, “strong” women are defined solely by the fact that they despise dresses and can do anything a man can. They lack personality and their only motivation is to prove themselves equal to men. It is a misconception that women cannot be strong and feminine at the same time. Writers of YA literature should focus on their heroines’ attributes and capabilities unique to them as women.
This trope goes hand in hand with the damsel in distress trope, one of many gender-related YA tropes that bore literary agents. The damsel in distress has no purpose other than to be rescued by the male protagonist. This is an outdated trope. Literary agents are looking for female characters that play a real role in the story and have more agency, depth, and development. A successful imagining of the strong female character trope and reversal of the damsel in distress trope is found in the YA book The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. In this novel, the protagonist Aerin is not only a feminine woman warrior, she also rescues her love interest Tor in the midst of a battle he is sure to lose.
2. Love between the two main characters trope
In YA novels, it is often a given that the two main characters (or three in a love triangle) fall in love. Perhaps the most famous example is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale in The Hunger Games. Love at first sight also frequently comes into play. While literary agents have nothing against a good love story, they are looking for more nuanced love stories where the relationship between the love interests is a process. YA relationship tropes have the tendency to idealize romantic relationships and create unhealthy expectations. Literary agents are therefore looking for realistic elements such as the conversation, quirks, and disagreements involved in the characters’ relationship.
While a romance novel should, of course, revolve around a budding romance, romance is not necessary to other genres. The two main leads don’t need to be romantically interested in each other. Instead, explore how they make a good platonic team. The romance in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner subverts typical romances. The romance develops throughout the six book series and involves several twists. In addition to superficial differences, such as Queen Attolia being both taller and older than Eugenides, their relationship is depicted through subtle exchanges and is formed more through what is left unsaid than what is said.
3. Prologues trope
Another YA trope that frustrates literary agents is prologues. Literary agents want to be thrown into the story without being confronted by unnecessary material. Depending on the genre of YA, prologues can range from dream openings and flashbacks to prosaic descriptions and battle scenes. Literary agents want to feel a connection to the characters before they engage in battle. They want to learn details little by little instead of drowning in pages of background exposition. They don’t want to be cheated by a dream scene that isn’t real or confused by flashbacks that muddle the timeline before the story has even started.
The moral of the story is show, not tell. Devise a better way to cut to the conflict, reveal a character’s personality, or communicate background information. In the YA novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, the first chapter does all three without a prologue. It starts building background and the character of the protagonist Meg as she muses on her family life and school troubles, establishes an increasingly ominous atmosphere with a fierce storm, and introduces a problem with the arrival of a mysterious guest who knows more than she should.
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4. Orphaned protagonist trope
If they’re not orphaned, they soon will be. The orphaned protagonist trope is common in YA novels. Plotwise, the parents need to be out of the way for the young heroes to be catapulted into adventures and decision-making roles that they otherwise would not be. This happens in Divergent when Tris’s parents are killed soon into the story. If the protagonist does have one or both parents, they are often controlling, abusive, foolish, or otherwise portrayed in a negative light. For example, Katniss’s mother in The Hunger Games series is present, but Katniss is forced to lead the household because her mother has withdrawn from all responsibility.
Literary agents are looking for a fresh take on parents. Instead of presenting parents as individuals to scorn or escape from, perhaps their children look up to them and want to emulate them. Maybe the parents are dragon riders and are training their daughter to ride dragons. Maybe the parents return when the son believed they were lost. Incorporating parents into your YA novel will be sure to make it stand out.
5. The quest trope
Common to fantasy, dystopian, or utopian YA subgenres, the quest trope is another one that literary agents have seen enough of. The protagonist’s family, way of life, or world is threatened and they must set out on a quest to save it, either by going somewhere, finding something, or destroying something else. This YA trope is often accompanied by prophecies or riddles and involves a series of obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.
Literary agents are hungry for fresh challenges in quest tropes. What if the character never reaches his or her destination? What if the prophecy has no power after all? What if they discover they are on the wrong side? The YA novel The Giver by Lois Lowry offers a different perspective on the quest. Jonas, the protagonist, at first sets out to preserve the way of life in his community. However, he comes to realize that his community is not the utopia he thought it was and fights to change it.
6. The outsider leading a rebellion trope
In several action-based YA novels, such as Divergent and The Hunger Games, the main character is an outsider who somehow ends up becoming the leader of a rebellion. They are often reluctant to take on the role and do everything they can to resist it. Or, they are the first to rebel against the oppressive government or system and draw crowds of people to their cause.
While this is a powerful feel-good trope, it often fails to be believable; hence its unpopularity with literary agents. Katniss is an example of this trope done well. Katniss’s rise to rebel leader is realistic because she previously developed valuable skills useful to a rebellion, and her actions in the arena made her the mascot District 13 needed. Moreover, she is not perfect and lacks the speaking skills needed to inspire a group to insurrection. The bottom line is this trope needs to have a plausible background and reveal the rebel leader’s flaws.
7. Anglo-centric setting trope
Whether it’s the revelatory road trip or the discovery of first love, many YA novels take place in America or other English-speaking countries. With the current focus on diversity in literature and publishing companies, literary agents are looking for a wider variety of experiences and perspectives. Why not write something that takes place in South America, Africa, or Australia? One YA series, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, is a good example of alternate settings in literature. The series draws from Celtic and Norse history, mythology, and language, and the later books take place in Wales.
Writing about a broader range of places is important for two reasons. One, for readers to find places and people they are familiar with, and two, for readers to meet places and people foreign to them. By reading about a country different from their own, readers can increase empathy for other people groups. It is equally important for minority groups to see themselves and their heritage in literature. My cousin who is an islander spoke to this when Disney made the movie Moana: she was excited because mainstream media was “finally recognizing island culture!” In order to truly celebrate diversity in literature, it is essential to move away from exoticized and stereotyped portrayals of foreign countries and instead provide a sympathetic view of people and culture.
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Avoid these 7 YA tropes that bore literary agents to get the attention of agents and readers alike. These tropes did not always have negative connotations, but were at one time new and interesting innovations. Rather than adhering to the standards of old tropes, use them as starting points for new ideas.
By writing variations on beloved but outdated YA tropes, you can craft a story that appeals to YA fans and also engages with modern issues that young adults of today face. Make it your mission to create new tropes that literary agents will love!