How to Keep the Lovers in Your YA Novel Apart

shutterstock_217031539I’m not going to try to deny it. I love a great love story. Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Katniss and Peeta. The problem as a YA writer, though, is that there are only so many good reasons that an author has to keep the lovers in the story apart. One of my favorite love obstacles was on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Buffy and her love, Angel, were “together”, Angel becomes an evil vampire hellbent on killing her due to an ancient curse placed on him. It made for pretty intense viewing, but it could only last a few seasons before the options fizzled out.

As I continue to noodle on my next series, which will have a fairly weighty romance element woven in, I wanted to consider some of the options for making love difficult for my protagonist (poor thing – not a word written and I’m already trying to sabotage her). Here are some of the classic romantic obstacles and examples of how they’ve been handled by YA writing pros.

The Love Triangle
Sure, it’s overplayed. For a good reason. A well-written love triangle gives readers the exhilaration of true love and the pathos of heartbreak in one neat package. A really cool twist on the love triangle that I recently enjoyed was Timebound (The Chronos Files Book 1) by Rysa Walker. The heroine has the ability to travel in time, and making changes to history affects the world as she knows it. As a result, she has two soul mates from different timelines – but she only remembers one. Too bad he doesn’t remember her… Some prominent voices in traditional publishing are saying that love triangles are really overplayed right now, but I think there is still a place for them. However, it has to be tackled with care – three likable characters are a must and a unique twist is even better.

Somebody’s Already Taken
There’s nothing like falling in love with someone who’s already in love with someone else to create high drama. I thought Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins did a good job of evolving friendship into love without being cliché. In this case, it wasn’t the protagonist who was taken, but the boy she likes. It brought me back to the days of watching Joey pine for Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. So relatable and the drama carried me through for this super quick read.

They Hate Each Other…Until They Don’t
This is a staple of a lot of romance novels, and I’ve seen it work for YA fiction as well. The key to doing it well is having the lovers have a compelling reason to hate each other (think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth hates what a snotty brat Mr. Darcy is, and Mr. Darcy is appalled by her trashy family, rather than a Harlequin romance). Where it falls apart is when the reason the characters don’t like each other is flimsy to begin with, because the conflict in the story feels artificial, or there simply isn’t enough of it.

They’re From Two Groups Who Hate Each Other
The classic example is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but for a more recent example, check out The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The author uses a caste system in the series. The heroine is from a low caste, and the hero is a prince. It leads to lots of conflict because there are many people invested in seeing their relationship fail. One reason I think this device works well is because the hero and heroine don’t have to lose faith in each other, cheat, or doubt their feelings, which can make a reader’s interest fizzle. They’re on the same team, battling forces outside their control.

It’s Too Dangerous to Be Together
Especially in YA fantasy and dystopian books, this is a popular theme. The Twilight series famously combined this with the love triangle and was spectacularly popular. I have to hand it to Stephanie Meyer, the idea that your soul mate might kill you at any time was a twist I hadn’t seen a lot of in YA fantasy before she wrote her series. But other books have been successful here too – I enjoyed the Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi. The world is toxic and on the brink of war, so the main characters have to put aside their love for each other to battle the bleak realities of their lives.

Something No One’s Seen Before
This is the hardest and best option. The devices listed above are tried and true, but as a reader there is nothing that hooks me more than a love that is too nuanced to be shoved into one category. I recently read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and the hero and heroine are kept apart by lots of things – their age, insecurities, and personal tormentors, to name a few. But the depth of and sweetness of the feeling couldn’t be denied. In the end, good writing trumps all.

I’m on the hunt for YA books that handle romance skillfully as inspiration for my next series. Any recommendations?


Write a Prologue that Hooks Readers

shutterstock_117237259Among those of us who proudly call ourselves writing geeks, the topic of prologues can be like discussing the morality of the death penalty in other circles. I know authors who hate them, as well as readers who skip prologues and go straight to the first chapter. Personally, I love a great prologue. I think of a well-written prologue as a teaser pulls me in to the story right away.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times to avoid the prologue. I thought this post by Kristen Lam on The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues did a great job of summing up some of the ways that prologues get abused.

When used appropriately, prologues can be a powerful tool to hook readers and add an extra layer of tension or depth to the first reading of a story. Below are some of my favorite prologues in YA fiction and the lessons I took away from them. Each of these authors used their prologues to achieve different ends, but they all created an opening that hooks the reader and enhances the story that follows.

Add dimension to your story by giving away a key piece of information.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
The prologue for Eleanor and Park sets up from the get-go that the two title characters in this teen romance are no longer together. By giving this away from the beginning, it makes the romance that follows all the more bittersweet. It also adds an element of danger – are they broken up because the heroine died? Constructing the prologue this way adds to the tension of the story in key scenes, and the payoff in the end is very satisfying.

Inform readers of key backstory.
Paper Towns by Josh Green
Paper Towns was the book that got me thinking about the effectiveness of backstory. The author uses a prologue to introduce readers to a key scene that is telling about the two main characters in the story, a suicide that they witnessed as children. The scene is prologue-worthy not only because it reveals the personalities of the two main characters, but also because the incident has an impact on how they process the world for the rest of their lives.

Give readers a peek into the future.
Timebound by Rysa Walker
A prologue can be the perfect tool to drop readers in the middle of action without frustrating them. It’s a great hook, and you can then back up and tell your story more slowly when you begin with Chapter 1. In Timebound, we quickly discover that the protagonist is time traveling, and is in incredible danger. The mystery of what’s happening in this scene become unraveled throughout the book, and we only discover how it is resolved in the climax.

Use your prologue to set the stakes.
Sanctum by Sarah Fine
In Sanctum, the heroine goes to a kind of hellish afterlife to save her best friend from an eternity of limbo, while risking her own chance at finding heaven. To understand why she would go to these lengths, the reader has to understand the relationship. Fine skillfully uses her prologue to establish the roots of the friendship, as well as the roots of the problems that lead to the premise of the story. The prologue captures the reader’s attention and leads seamlessly into the story that follows.

Subvert expectations.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
The Twilight series has its detractors, but I thought Meyer did an excellent job with her prologues, particularly in the first book of the series. As the heroine explains that she is happy to die for love, it not only tells us something about her character, but also sets us up for the climax of the book. Throughout, we are sure that Bella will be sacrificing her life for her new soul mate, but in fact the prologue is talking about her love for her mother. The surprise was sweet and increased my sympathy with the protagonist.

Did you include a prologue in your story? If so, what purpose does it serve?