The YA (Young Adult) genre has been hot ever since the success of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight.” However, since then, there have been many flops and outright disappointing movies. The big problem is simply how the typical YA novel is structured.
The YA genre follows two criteria. First, it needs a love triangle such as a girl trying to choose between a vampire and a werewolf (“Twilight”) or between the boy she thought she loved back home or the boy who helps save her life during a battle to the death (“The Hunger Games”).
Love triangles are fine because they create conflict. Where most YA novels fall apart as both stories and failed blueprints for screenplays is that they’re not complete.
A complete story involves a hero achieving a goal and defeating a villain in the process. This villain doesn’t need to be killed, but his or her plans must be foiled. The key is that every villain from the major villain to his or her henchmen must also be defeated.
In “Die Hard,” there’s the main villain who’s the leader (Hans) and all of his helpers (his henchmen). All the henchmen get killed along with Hans so they’re all defeated in the end.
In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader lives but his ship is crippled and he fails to destroy the rebel base. Meanwhile, all his henchmen are killed when Luke blows up the Death Star. Every villain and henchman must be defeated in some way to create a complete and satisfying story.
In “The Hunger Games,” the president (the main villain) is temporarily defeated when Katniss helps stir rebellion among the people, creating problems for the president. In addition, the gamekeeper is forced to commit suicide while the other contestants are killed in the game itself. By defeating all villains, “The Hunger Games” creates a complete story.
Now look at bad YA stories turned into movies. “The Maze Runner” was a box office success although the story isn’t complete. The basic story is that some boys wake up in a maze with things that try to kill them. They don’t know who put them in the maze or why. By the end of the movie, they still don’t know who put them in the maze or why. The ending leaves you hanging with unanswered questions, which creates an incomplete story.
The story may still be enjoyable, but its ending is frustrating. Imagine if in “Star Wars” the Death Star never showed up at all and the story ended. That would create an incomplete story.
In “The 5th Wave,” the hero’s goal is to rescue her little brother, and she succeeds. But the villain isn’t hurt one bit by the hero rescuing her little brother and therefore the story is incomplete.
What makes YA stories particularly frustrating is that the original story is geared simply to create sequels. In “The Maze Runner,” we never know why the boys are trapped in a maze, who put them there, and for what purpose.
If you read “The Maze Runner” trilogy, you’ll finally find the answer in the last book, and it makes no sense whatsoever. Apparently a virus wiped out most of the population and the boys have immunity to the virus, so the government is trying to develop a vaccine by studying the boys and putting them under stress. Of course, this kills the people whose blood they need to develop the vaccine, so by killing the boys whose blood they need to develop the vaccine, the government is killing their own chances of developing a vaccine. Does this make sense?
Even more confusing is that the hero is hinted to have created the maze. Knowing that it involves near certain death, he volunteers to go into the maze himself, having his memory wiped clean. Why does he do this? There’s no reason or logical explanation, which creates an incomplete and unfulfilling story.
In “The 5th Wave,” aliens have wiped out most of the population in successive waves of attacks ranging from natural disasters to disease. The 5th wave refers to aliens disguising themselves as humans to get children to kill the remaining adults. Why do the aliens need to do this? That’s never explained. It creates an entertaining story, but it makes no sense and we have no idea what the aliens’ goal is other than to wipe out the humans, and they could easily do that without recruiting children to kill the remaining adults.
By the end of “The 5th Wave,” the hero has not hurt the aliens one bit, set back their goals, or defeated them in anyway. To find out what happens next, you have to read the sequels.
Creating a movie or any story that requires a sequel to find the unanswered question is simply poor storytelling. “The Hunger Games” works because it tells a complete story where the sequels simply add to the story.
“The Maze Runner” and “The 5th Wave” do not work as movies because they tell incomplete stories. Even though both are entertaining as novels, they still tell incomplete stories and are thus flawed as novels as well.
As a general rule, don’t write a screenplay that requires a sequel to finish the story. You can get away with this in a novel, but you cannot get away with this in a movie unless you’re writing a sequel to an already successful original movie.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is an example of an incomplete story, but because “Star Wars” was a complete story, audiences accepted this incomplete story. Imagine if “The Empire Strikes Back” were the first movie people saw. Would they care about what happens with the incomplete ending? Probably not.
The general rule with storytelling, especially in the YA genre, is to tell complete stories, hopefully with logical endings unlike “The Maze Runner.”