Welcome to our first official Undercover Wednesday post! No pressure, right? *wipes brow* *checks breath* Well, my mission this week was super exciting! And terrifying! It sent me to a dark and scary place to explore a topic I personally struggle with as a YA writer --- SETTING.
Dun dun dunnnnn. I know, I know. Some of you are groaning while the rest of you are doing a little golf-clap. Maybe it's only me, but setting's one of those things I don't mean to overlook when I start a new book…it's just that when it's stacked up next to heavy hitters like Character and High Stakes and Plot and KISSING, well, it sort of blends into the book binding for me.
But every once in a while, a book comes along with a kick ass setting that I can't help but fall madly in love with. You know the kind. A unique, richly-created world where you see, feel, smell, and hear all the things happening right on the page. Settings that unfold so organically without feeling forced. Settings that become a fully fleshed character all on their own. I'm talking Hunger Games, Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Sky is Everywhere, Anna and the French Kiss – all totally worthy of the cushiest welcome mat ever.
But not all books have this warm and cozy feeling…which made me curious to find out more about the settings we see in today's YA books.
What makes them work? What makes them not work? What's overdone? What's not done enough? And more importantly, what do TEENS think of these settings?
So, I reached out to our Teen Spies and picked their brains to get to the bottom of this mystery. What I learned made the contemporary writer in me squirm something fierce, but also (surprisingly) made me really REALLY excited to get back into my WIP and shake some trees (haha – get it? Trees? Setting? Yup, I'm here all night, folks).
Here are my takeaways:
When asked about their favorite book settings, our Teen Spies offered quite a range of answers. They liked:
Places of solace – think library, clubhouse, the lake, a reserved spot in the woods.
A common place with a twist – think a brick-and-mortar school…but for spies, an empty football field, a quiet cafeteria.
Disturbing but authentic and raw – think rehab centers and mental institutions.
Futuristic places – think otherworldly prisons and alternate universes.
What do all these favorite settings have in common? They're all uncommon. They aren't loaded with clichés like crowded school halls, locker areas, classrooms, school buses. Even the settings that use a familiar place skew them just enough to make the overall atmosphere unfamiliar, unexpected and, thus, exciting.
So it probably comes as no surprise, then, that the settings our Teen Spies aren't crazy about include overused places like movie theaters, school bus lines, crowded cafeterias, spirited football games, and locker rooms. To put it bluntly, one Spy said, "Cafeteria scenes are becoming the worse cliché. I don't mind reading about our MC's chowtime with her BFFs once or twice, but I don't need to hear about it in every stinking chapter." Yeah, me neither.
Although I should also add a different Spy recognized that populated areas like cafeterias and locker rooms are basically nerve centers just begging for drama, so it makes sense why a writer would want to use these as hot spots for action. It's sort of a 'see or be seen' set up. The more people milling about, the more attention a character will get if something happens there. On the flip side, she also mentioned that a tucked away place like a sports locker room where teens are less likely to get caught might make sense if your characters want to sneak off for a bit of a private smoocheroo. So, it goes without saying that the reading experience—especially for teens—is very subjective.
If the majority of our Spies aren't digging the school scene so much, well, what kind of settings do they want to see?
Easy. Our Teen Spies expressed to me their desire to see places that'll help them escape the every day "teen" life. Like foreign countries that offer more culture and diversity. Summer camps that offer a taste of nostalgic fun. Comfortable places that remind them of "laughter and hot summer nights and that old faded couch with the deflated cushions." A base where they can feel at ease when life gets muy loco. As one Spy puts it, "I would like to see things that are just as comfortable and rustic as home. Isn't that what reading is all about, feeling at ease, as comfortable as can be—feeling at home?" Touché, dear Spy. Touché.
Admittedly, most of the examples given so far have been slanted toward contemporary stories. So, when I asked specifically about what fantasy settings they liked, disliked, or thought were overdone…the answers were pretty one-sided. Overall, they thought fantasy settings are pretty flexible, although common locales like old villages, farms, and castles can blend together if you don't give it a unique perspective. But since there are more options available in these magical worlds, the writer really can't afford to slack. Instead, writers should be digging deep to take advantage of the richness these places offer, while still making sure to ground the reader in unfamiliar landscapes.
Our Teen Spies were very candid with me about what they like and don't like in YA settings and, honestly, I'm only hitting the tip of the iceberg with this topic. But one thing all the Spies agreed on was that whatever setting is used, it should make sense to the story and work with the action. It shouldn't be an afterthought. Where writers go wrong with setting is when they abandon it for action, narrative, and interaction between characters—to the point where the setting feels lost.
A good note to remember is that teens often read to escape school and their everyday routines, not necessarily to be reminded of it all the time. But like everything in writing, if you make your character's world unique and important to them and their specific situation, then the setting—whether overly familiar or overly whackadoodle—will always have a feeling of freshness.
What about you? Are there common settings in YA books that you're sick of seeing? Any standouts you want to share? Let us know if this post was helpful by leaving a comment!
And a special thanks to our Teen Spies for opening up about this Undercover topic!
~Cam (aka Cutta Mutha) OUT!