Tropes, common themes found throughout literature, are a useful literary device that convey larger ideas within fewer words because of how well readers know and understand the motifs. These themes are particularly useful in young adult literature and work well with the category because of the economic language YA requires. As young adult literature tells narratives in a more concentrated fashion, tropes can be used as a shorthand approach to conveying larger concepts. When you utilize them appropriately, tropes can enhance your book’s style and marketability. But what are some of the popular YA tropes, and how do you write them well?
What you’ll find in this article:
- Popular YA tropes
- Who does them well
- The difference between popular and overdone
- How to keep them fresh
Popular Young Adult Tropes
Novels thrive with the use of tropes, and YA books are filled with themes and motifs that everyone can recognize, even if they don’t know what a trope is. But some tropes have proven extremely popular in YA literature:
Good vs. Evil
The concept of good and evil is woven throughout young adult literature. Knowing what is right and wrong and choosing which path to take sets the stage for growth and betterment. So producing the dichotomy of characters who are inherently good facing characters who are evil allows the protagonist to challenge their ideals and prove their worth as a hero.
The Chosen One
The chosen one theme is both popular and timeless because it gives the protagonist a kind of purpose that not only sets them apart from society and their peers, it challenges them to grow to be worthy of the title. When the fate of the world rests on their shoulders, the characters must set aside their childish ways to become heros. This theme pairs well with the YA concept of coming of age and growing up.
The outsider motif constitutes a protagonist who struggles to conform to the norm and relate to their peers. This is often because they recognize the social injustices within the world and their surroundings and have a need to fight against those behaviors that create injustice. The outsider trope helps identify the protagonist as unique and somewhat of a rebel, which aids in character development. It also heightens conflict, as the protagonist must stand up for what they believe in even against people they wish to be accepted by.
First love is a common trope in young adult because adolescence involves self-discovery including sexuality and attraction as hormones shift and people enter middle and high school. The motif of first love is relatable for readers and facilitates both character growth and conflict—internally and sometimes externally.
Adults as Adversaries
Making adults adversaries in young adult fiction can often be used as a crutch rather than an effective trope, but when done well, this theme creates a powerful contrast between the adolescent and adult point of view. To utilize the adult adversary trope to its fullest requires developing your protagonist so they grow to understand the adult perspective—even if they still don’t agree with it afterward. This allows a very concrete demonstration of the protagonist growing up because, as they grow, they become more similar to the adult they consider an adversary and often end up respecting that adult’s perspective once they fully understand it.
Dystopian societies have become a wildly popular theme over the last two decades, and in part, that’s because of how impactful it is as a trope. By placing the protagonist into a broken society, it allows a safe examination of the weaknesses within society and humanity in a more exaggerated setting while increasing the drama and the stakes. Dystopian societies set challenges for the protagonist that young adults would not typically face, and can better enhance the tension and stakes, leading to a more fast-paced narrative with a climactic ending.
The love triangle trope demonstrates several popular young adult concepts in one: young love, knowing who you are, and finding your place in the world. When done well, love triangles can generate a source of conflict, but they also highlight characteristics of the protagonist. One suitor can highlight certain qualities within the protagonist while the other suitor brings out different parts of their personality. This aids in developing a more complex protagonist while at the same time accentuating what makes the hero likeable. The key is knowing which suitor the protagonist should choose—if any—that will complete their character arc.
Like the chosen one motif, the hero’s reluctance to take up their responsibilities as royalty immediately sets the hero apart. But unlike the chosen one, this mantel the protagonist is expected to take up, often unexpectedly, can generate internal conflict about what a good ruler entails as well as whether the system of authority and law is both good and right. So while the protagonist is required to mature and grow to become what is expected of them, they must also consider the potential weaknesses within their society and have the courage to change the world for the better.
Who Does Tropes Well
Each of these tropes are popular because they’re relatable and relevant, but doing them well enhances the story and can be an art. Think of J. K. Rowling’s use of good versus evil in her contrast between Harry Potter, who is a kind protagonist, and Lord Voldemort, who is devoid of empathy. She also uses the chosen one trope when Harry has to rise up to his fate to defeat Lord Voldemort before he takes over the world. Rowling also utilizes the adult adversary theme in Harry’s constant confrontations with Professor Snape.
Suzanne Collins’s use of the dystopian trope in The Hunger Games trilogy drives the plot in a fast-paced, thrilling way. But her inclusion of the love triangle motif also allows her to challenge Katniss emotionally and highlights the strength and compassion in her, which Peeta and Gale find so appealing.
In the Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer employs the reluctant royalty trope when Princess Winter must step up to overthrow her evil stepmother, Queen Levana, and protect her people from subjugation at the hands of a horrible ruler. The series also includes engaging first love motifs for each of the protagonists as they find love in the midst of overthrowing an empire.
And S. E. Hinton wrote the iconic outsider motif in The Outsider, as Ponyboy struggles to fit in because he’s part of the greaser population and an outcast in the eyes of the popular athletes and richer students.
Popular vs. Overdone
The risk of using tropes is they can become overused and too predictable. It is important to utilize the trope for a distinct purpose rather than using it as a crutch. Tropes are useful for quick communication by conveying ideas readers will be familiar with, and with that it’s important to make your tropes unique to your story. These classic storylines catch readers’ interest, but you need to sustain that by incorporating something new. Avoid letting your tropes carry the story: good versus evil doesn’t mean the villain can be a flat character; first love doesn’t mean the love interest can be boring; reluctant royalty can’t be the only trait that makes the hero unique. It’s important to implement your own twists to keep your tropes engaging.
How to Keep Your Trope Fresh
There are several ways to put your own spin on popular, commonly used tropes. But before you can make a motif your own, you must first understand the pattern behind it. This comes from reading and identifying the similar themes authors use. Then you can:
- Flip it on its head: have the love triangle end with no one together. Take what the readers expect and reverse it.
- You can deconstruct tropes, identifying what stereotypes or negative aspects might come with that trope and highlight why it doesn’t work: analyze why the idea of an outsider is harmful to the concept of being an individual, which should be a good thing.
- Or combine unexpected tropes to form a more complex concept or character: that could be the chosen one finding themselves as an outsider.
Tropes are useful literary devices when done well. Young adult readers enjoy identifying the patterns and learn from them. Still, it’s good to make tropes your own. Put a fresh spin on classic concepts, and you’ll broaden your audience and keep your readers pleasantly surprised.
Still struggling with how to make YA tropes unique? HotGhostWriter can help. Our staff of skilled ghostwriters can implement engaging tropes and write a story your readers won’t want to set down. Check us out at HotGhostWriter.com, and get started today!