The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (2023)

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Ifabest-selling young adult novel sucksme inafter only a few pages, it’soften because the book is wieldinga secret weapon. Or rather, a not-so-secret weapon, because I’ve seen it many times before. And although I recognise it, it still has the power topeak my curiosity and getme rooting for acharacter I know next to nothingabout. So what is this clever trope?

It hastwo components, and these usually form a kind of structuring devicethat shapes the plot and climactic points of the novel:

1. TheSelection or “Choosing”

As the novel begins, thereis an approaching‘choosing ceremony’or ‘selection’ of some sort. This ceremony occurs soon after the book starts and is much anticipated, because beingchosen willentirely changethe life andfuture of the teenager or teenagersselected andseparate them from the life they led before. It’s effectively ashortlisting for the upcoming trial.

2. The Competition

What follows the selection is a competition, test or trial of some kind.It doesn’t have to be acompetition the characterwants to take part in… in fact it’s better if it’s not. Characters then fight to “win” – which often means fighting to survive andto be the one left standing. The protagonist is almost always an unwilling participant, driven to compete not by desire but by necessity.


Why is it so Effective?

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (2)Whether it’s the self-determining “choosing ceremony” and subsequentFactioninitiation in Divergent, the random allocation of “tributes” and ensuing tournamentin The Hunger Games, thecompetitionfor the hand of the prince in The Selection,or theoffering of one teenagegirl every ten years to a “Dragon” inUprooted,a selection and/or competitionis always a powerful hook.

In my opinion, there are several reasonswhy it is used so often and to such great effect in YA fiction:

A Sense of Foreboding

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (3)One of the best things about this kind of plot structure is that it creates an immediate sense of foreboding and tension as we discover a grand choosing is about to take place. The protagonist waits withhigh anxiety for the moment, asdo we. We want tosee if they will be the one chosen and how it will affect them. It’s one of the most effective ways to drawin a reader.

For example, when Katniss explains what thebrutal Hunger Games are and how the selection of Tributes works,we knowshe will be chosen. We know because she’s our protagonist and that’s just how this whole storytelling thing works– but we still wait with baited breath for the moment to come, and to watch herlife change forever.

A Coming of Age Ceremony

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (4)It’s unsurprising these selectionand competition devices are so prevalent in young adult fiction. Many real-world societies have ceremonies,competitions and milestones to mark the transition to adulthood– moments when an adolescenttakeson newstatus and responsibility. These fictional trialsalso echo the many examinations, try-outsand hurdles teenagers go through duringhigh school.Fiction represents and explores thesedeep-seated traditions and young adult experiences.

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For example, the choosing ceremony in Divergent is a ritualistic eventwhere teenagers choosewhich ‘Faction’ they want to be part of. It’s achoicethatforces them todecidewho they are and where they belong, toseparatefrom their parents, and totake on new adult responsibilities in their new faction. For Tris, it is also a choice to face her fears and engage in a set of potentially deadly initiation trials.

TheChosen One

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (5)There is the reason the “chosen one” clichéexists. Wewant our protagonists to be “special” – we want them to bedestined for great things, and there is no better way to mark them as specialthan a selection that separatesthem from a crowd. We want this because it taps into our own desires to be special, but also because we enjoy seeing young characters rise up, overcome hardships and emerge victorious.

For example, inUprootedAgnieszka is sure her more talented and beautiful friend will be chosen by the Dragon… and as such we immediately want her to be chosen instead, even though it seems a depressingfate. Why? Because we want her to beextraordinary in some way and change the world. A comfortable village life is too boring for our heroine.

High Stakes

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (6)We enjoyseeing our young adult characters succeed not onlyifthe prize isgreat, but if their failure would becatastrophic. In many YA novels, losingthe competition could mean death, imprisonment or being an eternal outcast. This sets the stakes high, and high stakes are essential tokeep readers turning pages.

In Throne of Glass, the youngCelaenaSardothienis plucked from slaveryby Prince Dorian and given a chance to escape her captivity. All she has to do is compete to become the king’s assassin, but if she loses,suffering,life imprisonment and deathawaither. We want her to succeed because we enjoy seeing her display her skill, because her competitors are murderers and crooks, and because we sense she may be instrumental in bringing down the tyrannical king…but also simply because the price of her failure would be toogreat.

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The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (7)It wouldn’t be a young adult novel without a little rebellion against authority, would it? Selections and competitions force characters into situations where they have littlecontrol over their fate. Often they trapthem, put them through gruelling experiences, nearly kill them – all whilea malevolent puppeteer pullsthe strings. This sets up an antagonist worthy of our hatred, and makes us desperately want our character to succeed, rebel and topple that authority. This is probably why theyareso prevalent in dystopian fiction, where oppressive governmentsand tyrannical rulersare the status quo.

Following the removal of Ender’s monitoring deviceand his selectionfor battle school in Ender’s Game, he is put through a series of gruelling trials. Although it is his fellow cadets who directly antagonise and challenge him, we are aware that theadults in charge are letting it happen anddeliberately engineering situations toisolate him and force him to use violence. As such, we shareEnder’s frustration and anger, and eachof hisvictories feels satisfying as he thwarts the expectations of the adults.

Exceptions and Variations

The Power of Competitions and Selections in YA Fiction (8)Some YA novels only use part of the trope, put a different spin on it, or use it at different points in the series rather than at the beginning.

Aselection ceremony involving theSorting Hat is used in the firstHarry Potterbook,but acomplete selection and competition structureisn’t used till laterinThe Goblet of Fire. Competitionsand selectionsalso regularly occuron a smaller scale in Quidditch tournaments and school examinations. In Novik’sUprootedthe “choosing”is not followed by a competition, but more of a personal trial. In Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky there is no competition element, but when teenagers come of age the government decideswho will marry who, and also runsan annual lottery to selectawinning family. The family gets to escape the diseased, corn-ridden Heartland and start a new life in one of the elitefloating cities above… but atypically, much of the series explores characters dealingwith the fallout of not being selected, rather than being selected. In Ready Player Oneteen charactersenter a dangerous competition to find the “Easter Eggs”, but theyare voluntary and willing participants, and the authority that has engineered the game is a benevolent one.

Is it a Prerequisite for Success?

Manypopular and best-selling YA books don’t use the trope at all, so it’s not ubiquitous or necessary for success. It tends to be most common in Dystopian YA fiction, but even there it is not always present.

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However, there’s no denying it’s a powerful and prevalent device, and one that has been used in a variety of interesting ways in a spread of very popular and “addictive” books.I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the last of it, and I’m curious what future selections and competitions the genre will offer up.

But these are just thoughts and reactions from my own reading, soI’m curious to know what other people think.Does thiskind ofplot deviceappeal to you? Are there any YA books with achoosing+ trialstructure that I haven’tmentioned? Oris there a series that has used a competition or selectionineffectively?


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