Investigated – Formulas and the Lack of Originality in YA

Posted November 4, 2013 by Emily in Investigated / 5 Comments

I don’t know if it’s just me, but lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been reading the same few books only in alternate universes when I’m actually reading different books by different authors. It’s as if authors and perhaps publishers are using a formula to write books because it is known that books that contain the formula become hits. What I mean is that I feel that almost every YA book contains the same certain aspects that make the story seem very familiar. 
Nowadays, it feels an overly amount of YA book has…
  • A hero/heroine that is thrust into a “life changing” situation
  • A love triangle (or at least some sort of romance)
  • A “villain” or someone who hinders the protagonist’s journey
  • A story that takes place in a different world, usually after some sort of apocalypse 
And then with those components the story goes something like this. The main character is introduced living his/her everyday life. Something changes. Either the character comes “of age” (think Initiation in Divergent by Veronica Roth or the acceptance letter to Hogwarts in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling) or encounters some other sort of situation that changes their everyday life (think being forced to compete in the Hunger Games in the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). Then the character starts his/her new “adventure”. Along the way, he/she meets a love interest or two. The love interest(s) then help the protagonists on his/her journey. If there are more than one love interest, they usually also fight to win the heart of the protagonists. Then, the protagonist and company are met by a roadblock in a form of either a villain or two or some other obstacle that they must overcome. After the team “solves” the problem, the protagonist and whoever the love interest they choose is get a happily ever after. Or something along those lines.

Seriously, it feels like so many YA books are like that, that it feels like I’m reading the same story over and over again except with different characters, different situations, and different universes and settings by different authors if you squint. That really shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Except that some authors have a hard time making that story their own. Of course there are some authors that manage to set themselves apart, but not all of them do. And I’m left with this boring book because I can already guess most of what happens.

What is interesting is this pattern is somewhat different when it comes to self published and indie books. I have read (and know of) a lot of indie/self published books that stray from the “formula” completely. And a lot those books only became indie/self published after the manuscripts were rejected by publishing companies. So what, you ask? That wouldn’t be that much of a problem only if the those books weren’t that good, but they were (at least I thought so) and sometimes it seemed like they were better than a lot of the books that were published by major publishing companies. One reason why those books were so good was because they are all fresh and more unique – they had the originality that I feel is lacking in a lot of the books that are published by major publishers. I also thought they were pretty well written. Which raises the question, are publishing companies choosing which books to publish on if they contain the “formula of success”? I’m no expert in publishing or anything really close to that (I’m the consumer, not the producer, so I really have no idea how books get published), but it certainly is starting to seem like the answer to that question is yes.

What do you think?
Do you feel that YA books nowadays lack originality and tend to follow a formula?
Or do you disagree? 



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5 responses to “Investigated – Formulas and the Lack of Originality in YA

  1. To be honest, I don’t mind the formula. I think stories in general are never new. They’re mostly recycled and reused through time, and what makes a story good is the author making it feel like it’s new even when it isn’t. I agree that from what I’ve read, a lot of Indie books have been pretty out there, both in good and bad ways. A while ago I did feel the same way. What’s happened is that I’m now much more selective in my reading and there are a lot of really good books out there. Just keep your expectations high and look for them!

    -P.E. @ The Sirenic Codex

  2. I absolutely hate the formula. I had to DNF Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano this week because it’s basically a bland rip off of every other dystopian published in the last two years. It’s a shame that originality has become the sphere of indie and small-press books, but luckily some of them get acquired by mainstream publishers once they hit it big independently — and then they can become the new formula 🙂

  3. I think stories tend to be about similar things, but it’s how the author presents the story and writes it that makes it new and interesting. Too often, books are told in similar ways and since the plot is already similar, the book just seems repetitive.

    Publishing, at the end of the day, is a business and needs to make money. I think they’re not as willing to experiment with a new author and a new format since it might be too risky for them. However, it is nice when an indie gets picked up by a major publisher and the audience for the book increases.

  4. You can apply “the formula” to pretty much any story. It may be something that’s hardwired into us, because you see it all over the world in diverse cultures. While today’s YA may have more romance and love triangles, the basic formula is going to be similar in most stories, YA or not. Sometimes it’s not as obvious, but it’s there. Joseph Campbell talks about it as the monomyth.

    Now, I’m not necessarily talking about the influx of books where a teenage girl with superpowers is fought over by vampires/werewolves/zombies/angels in a post-apocalyptic landscape for the survival of all humanity. That’s been done to death in YA, and there’s not a lot you can do with that genre that’ll be viewed as unique.

  5. I do think that YA books have started feeling the same. I recently read the Diviners which is marketed as a YA book but I actually enjoyed it. Finally I read a good YA book that didn’t follow this same format. I guess maybe I am a little tired of YA. I try to watch for those stand out books that everyone is talking about. Glad I am not the only one who’s noticed this.

    Angela’s Anxious Life