I’ve been reading a lot. And I’ve been noticing some patterns I have no need to see ever again in my life in fiction. I offer them to you here, in the classic and revered 21st century form known as a listicle.
1) The New York City struggling writer.
Good Lord. I’ve read like three or four books with this as a thing in the last few months. Yeah, I get it. The author feels very comfortable with this subject, because they are this subject. But it’s fiction. And there are so many more exciting situations to write about. So tired. So done.
2) Protagonist withholds information for the entire book.
Excuse me? What just happened? Did I really just read something where the character knew something they didn’t bother to tell us the entire book and that was the twist of the entire plot? I see this most often in YA, and when I do, I usually want to throw my book into the sea. It has been done well. Mostly, though, it has not, and unless there is a damn good reason, it’s super obnoxious to withhold info in first-person narratives and feels so contrived. Also, it just makes it land as less real. If I’m in a character’s head the entire novel, it’s not at all realistic or authentic to have someone not think of some life-changing trauma or secret until the end. I can see the writer at work in this device, and they are lazy.
3) Flashbacks in italics.
What am I reading, the beginning of a Sweet Valley High book? Remember how those would begin? You’d flip past the title page and get:
Jessica flipped her champagne-blond tresses and stared into the emerald green eyes of Bruce, the richest boy at school.
“I don’t want to get on that motorcycle, not on a rainy night like this!” she cried.
Bruce flexed his handsome but intimidating tan bicep. “It’s take it or leave it, baby.”
They kissed passionately and rode off into the night. Bruce broke the speed limit, taking the curbs faster and faster.
“Watch out!” Jessica yelled.
Suddenly, the flash of oncoming lights blinded her like a sun.
“Bruce!” Jessica yelled. “I don’t want to die!"“
But they skidded out. Jessic shut her eyes and they were soon deafened by the sound of crunching metal …
Fin. Then you flip a page and the book begins back in the Wakefields’ split-level nuclear family paradise in Sweet Valley at page 1 before any drama started.
Wow, I got really into that. Maybe SVH fanfic’s my new thang. But actually, the point of this is … please don’t do this. It’s so cheap and terrible. The best books build intrigue slowly and insidiously in their beginnings, without the need for italics or bringing readers in at the height of the book’s melodrama. You can hint at that. You can even start with a deadpan line about what’s coming. The Lovely Bones’ opening is a great example.
You can totally spoil some big plot points and provide a hook as early as sentence one, but if it just looks like an in-scene cut-and-paste job from the climax of the novel, and worse—italicized? Stahhhp.
4) The dead baby.
You didn’t. Oh no, you didn't. You didn’t just bust out a dead baby to make me feel something for an unsympathetic character, did you? That feels so manipulative. Like, I’m a human being, of course I’m going to get moved by the dead baby twist, but I’m going to hate you for it. Feels so lazy if not done well and just thrown in there. So if it’s not done well, and, god forbid, it is done in conjunction with #3? Away with you. Forever.
5) Books about suicide that revolve around “why did this person do this"?"
This book is practically a genre in YA. I think it’s not only overdone, it’s ultimately harmful. When teens who might be struggling with suicidal ideation or tendencies turn to these types of books to explore their own experiences in a different way, they’re met with depression narratives about people who succeeded in their suicide attempts, and everyone left mourning and wondering why and imagining the way they did it. This can actually romanticize it for a suicidal person. It’s so much more common to attempt suicide than it is to die by suicide, and yet there seem to be less books about surviving from the point of view of survivors. I much prefer books like The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati—a messy, realistic view of the zig-zagging road toward survival with mental illness.
I’m not cool with so much in fiction! This is not exhaustive. But I’m tired and I’ll stop for now. I will end with a disclaimer that, of course, rules and judgements are made to be set on fire and everything can be done if you do it uniquely and well.