If a best-selling young adult novel sucks me in after only a few pages, it’s often because the book is wielding a 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 to peak my curiosity and get me rooting for a character I know next to nothing about. So what is this clever trope?
It has two components, and these usually form a kind of structuring device that shapes the plot and climactic points of the novel:
1. The Selection or “Choosing”
As the novel begins, there is an approaching ‘choosing ceremony’ or ‘selection’ of some sort. This ceremony occurs soon after the book starts and is much anticipated, because being chosen will entirely change the life and future of the teenager or teenagers selected and separate them from the life they led before. It’s effectively a shortlisting 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 a competition the character wants to take part in… in fact it’s better if it’s not. Characters then fight to “win” – which often means fighting to survive and to 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?
Whether it’s the self-determining “choosing ceremony” and subsequent Faction initiation in Divergent, the random allocation of “tributes” and ensuing tournament in The Hunger Games, the competition for the hand of the prince in The Selection, or the offering of one teenage girl every ten years to a “Dragon” in Uprooted, a selection and/or competition is always a powerful hook.
In my opinion, there are several reasons why it is used so often and to such great effect in YA fiction:
A Sense of Foreboding
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 with high anxiety for the moment, as do we. We want to see if they will be the one chosen and how it will affect them. It’s one of the most effective ways to draw in a reader.
For example, when Katniss explains what the brutal Hunger Games are and how the selection of Tributes works, we know she 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 her life change forever.
A Coming of Age Ceremony
It’s unsurprising these selection and 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 adolescent takes on new status and responsibility. These fictional trials also echo the many examinations, try-outs and hurdles teenagers go through during high school. Fiction represents and explores these deep-seated traditions and young adult experiences.
For example, the choosing ceremony in Divergent is a ritualistic event where teenagers choose which ‘Faction’ they want to be part of. It’s a choice that forces them to decide who they are and where they belong, to separate from their parents, and to take 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.
The Chosen One
There is the reason the “chosen one” cliché exists. We want our protagonists to be “special” – we want them to be destined for great things, and there is no better way to mark them as special than a selection that separates them 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, in Uprooted Agnieszka 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 depressing fate. Why? Because we want her to be extraordinary in some way and change the world. A comfortable village life is too boring for our heroine.
We enjoy seeing our young adult characters succeed not only if the prize is great, but if their failure would be catastrophic. In many YA novels, losing the competition could mean death, imprisonment or being an eternal outcast. This sets the stakes high, and high stakes are essential to keep readers turning pages.
In Throne of Glass, the young Celaena Sardothien is plucked from slavery by 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 death await her. 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 too great.
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 little control over their fate. Often they trap them, put them through gruelling experiences, nearly kill them – all while a malevolent puppeteer pulls the 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 they are so prevalent in dystopian fiction, where oppressive governments and tyrannical rulers are the status quo.
Following the removal of Ender’s monitoring device and his selection for 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 the adults in charge are letting it happen and deliberately engineering situations to isolate him and force him to use violence. As such, we share Ender’s frustration and anger, and each of his victories feels satisfying as he thwarts the expectations of the adults.
Exceptions and Variations
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.
A selection ceremony involving the Sorting Hat is used in the first Harry Potter book, but a complete selection and competition structure isn’t used till later in The Goblet of Fire. Competitions and selections also regularly occur on a smaller scale in Quidditch tournaments and school examinations. In Novik’s Uprooted the “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 decides who will marry who, and also runs an annual lottery to select a winning family. The family gets to escape the diseased, corn-ridden Heartland and start a new life in one of the elite floating cities above… but atypically, much of the series explores characters dealing with the fallout of not being selected, rather than being selected. In Ready Player One teen characters enter a dangerous competition to find the “Easter Eggs”, but they are voluntary and willing participants, and the authority that has engineered the game is a benevolent one.
Is it a Prerequisite for Success?
Many popular 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.
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, so I’m curious to know what other people think. Does this kind of plot device appeal to you? Are there any YA books with a choosing + trial structure that I haven’t mentioned? Or is there a series that has used a competition or selection ineffectively?