The YA (Young Adult) Story Formula

Ever since “The Hunger Games” came out and become a worldwide phenomena, Hollywood has been trying to duplicate that success over and over again with dismal results. The problem is simply the story structure of the typical YA (Young Adult) novel that made “The Hunger Games” the exception rather than the rule.

The basic structure of a YA story is that a hero is trapped in a dead end, typically futuristic and dystopian world. Although the hero doesn’t like this world, he or she isn’t motivated to rebel or change it.

The hero is in love with a boy/girl who represents this status quo, and the hero believes he/she has found true love. Then a new boy/girl enters the hero’s life, who represents chaos and rebellion against the status quo.

The hero is initially repelled by this rebellious figure and thinks he/she is really in love with the other boy/girl who represents the status quo, but as the story progresses, the hero starts falling in love with this rebellious character. Naturally, the hero winds up with this rebellious character, which mimics the hero’s rebellion against the status quo as well.

In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss thought she was in love with her childhood friend, Gale, who represents the status quo. Then she’s thrown into the Hunger Games with another boy, Peeta, who declares his love for her, much to her surprise and shock. Not surprisingly, Katniss eventually falls in love with Peeta and rejects Gale, especially when Gale is partially responsible for an attack that winds up killing Katniss’s little sister.

What “The Hunger Games” gets right is that the story has a definite and satisfying ending. Katniss survives the Hunger Games and returns back home again. In the process, she’s helped defeat the Game Master (who must commit suicide to maintain his honor) and encouraged rebellions around the country, indirectly setting back President Snow.

What most YA novels get wrong is that they don’t have a definite, complete ending. As a result, the story fails to end but instead sets up the next book. This failure to create a complete story is the biggest failure of every YA novel that has been turned into a movie.

“The Maze Runner” starts off with the initial question on why a bunch of boys are trapped in a maze with no memory of how they got there. By the end of the movie, we still have no idea why those boys were trapped in a maze with no memory of how they got there. This incomplete ending creates an unsatisfying story, which creates a less than exciting movie.

“The 5th Wave” is about aliens invading the Earth and the hero has to rescue her little brother from the aliens. At the end of the story, the hero rescues her little brother, but the villain has no idea who the hero is and the hero’s actions fail to disrupt the villain’s goals. This incomplete ending simply makes the entire story feel pointless and meaningless.

“Mortal Engines” is about cities that roll around, swallowing up smaller towns and cities. It’s loaded with so many disconnected subplots and actions that it seems less like a single story and more like multiple stories thrown together that make no sense together.

In “Mortal Engines,” characters appear with no setup ahead of time so we don’t know their significance when they do appear. Instead, characters and events seem to happen at random with no sense of direction or suspense. When one scene filled with random characters ends, a new scene with new random characters begins and starts the cycle all over again.

Besides an incomplete ending, a second huge failure of YA novels is that they fail to structure a story properly and instead focus on introducing exciting scenes and characters that seem more like an endless stream of random events than any coherent plot structure.

Look at the trail of failure that Hollywood has created with multiple YA novels from “Divergent,” “The Darkest Minds,” and “The Golden Compass.” The number one failure is the lack of a complete and satisfying story ending. The number two failure is the failure to set up characters and events ahead of time so they don’t seem to appear out of nowhere.

After audiences sit through a two hour movie, the last thing they want to see at the end of all this is to realize they only watched an incomplete movie and to learn more, they’ll need to watch two more movies before they’ll finally understand what’s going on. That’s a recipe for failure and that’s the recipe that most YA novels rely on to entice readers to pick up the next novel in the series.

Try writing a screenplay with an incomplete ending and it will never get made, but turn your incomplete story into a YA novel and it may get published, but will likely also be turned into a lousy movie.

Don’t write incomplete stories. Write complete, satisfying stories. Once you do that, you’ll have little trouble writing sequels, but if you try to write a novel that relies solely on an incomplete story to entice people to wait for a sequel, your story will likely never be made into a movie in the first place.

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