Part of the New Adult Project.
When I was in kindergarten and first years of school, my teachers sometimes set up days where all students or my class were to spend the day doing a secret activity. We’d go for a few weeks, trying to figure out what we were going to do and where we were going. As the days went on we’d gather some clues that teachers, accidentally or not, offered us. Each time a new clue came up we became surer and surer what the activity would be. Now, let’s face it, we were bored kids. We longed to go on big adventures, not spending the day in the forest looking at insects (which was one of those days). So, with each clue, we came closer and closer to the conclusion that the day wouldn’t be spent on a zoo. Still, we kept hoping. We kept hoping that we were wrong, that we wouldn’t be forced to collet insects, that we indeed would visit a zoo. Even if everything pointed that we would be disappointed, we kept hoping. We were excited. We thought and hoped we were wrong. Of course, when the day finally came, the teachers told us to take on our coats, lead us into the forest next to our school, and told us to find those damn insects. And so the disappointment came. All those days filled with hope and excitement. Gone. Just like that.
This disappointment is what New Adult is to me.
You may ask, what do New Adult and reading have to do with insects? Not much, really. Unless the protagonist is studying biology or insects, but that’s not the point. The point is that there seems to be a trend in New Adult that is very much like the ”surprise days”, and I’ll come to that in a minute.
The terms character driven and plot driven are known by many readers. It’s simple. Is the story character driven or plot driven? For New Adult, I’ve yet to come across one that has a clear plot driving the story forward. It always focuses on the characters. Their struggles (and they have tons of it), their hopes, their relationships. If there is one trait that can be said about New Adult stories, it is that they are driven by their characters. Or so I thought.
Lately, I’ve realized we need a new term. Maybe not a very clinical or scientific one, but I believe we need it.
What does secret driven mean? It’s quite simple, actually. While character driven stories are progressing with the characters’ development and actions, and plot driven stories are driven by certain events in the plot, a secret driven story progresses due to one big secret that is unknown to the reader. The characters then make decisions based on or because of this secret that is still unknown to the reader. This secret can be the cause for everything from avoiding relationships or commitment to stay out of college or to don’t visit certain places, etc.. The key point is that the secret is hidden from the reader, and often other characters than the protagonist.
But, several stories have secrets to make the story progress, you may say. And yes, they do. However, those stories are (often) not New Adult. When taking that in consideration, we must realize something else. New Adult is known for three things: being for older audiences than Young Adult, including sexual situations, and issues. It’s issues such as rape, abuse, drug use, mental illnesses, or otherwise traumatic events.
That said, the big secret is often regarding these issues, especially when the protagonist(s) has these issues in his/her past. Too many times I’ve read stories where this big secret is kept from the protagonist’s love interest. It’s either her avoiding commitment because she was, say, abused by a former partner or parental figure. For the bigger part of the story there is a constant going back and forth on the relationship, stringing the male (or female) protagonist along as she slowly (or not slowly) falls in love with him, overcoming her fear due to her feelings, and in the end (or near the end) confesses her past. Cue happy ever after or cliffhanger. Or it can be the other way around. The male protagonist has a secret that the female protagonist is unaware of, she only knows he has a big secret. And so, since the typical male protagonist in New Adult is aggressive or struggles with control with both himself and his relationship, she excuses his behavior despite not knowing the full story. When she learns his past (after they have fallen in love and thus are ”healed”), she understands his behavior, and again, excuses it. Cue happy ending or cliffhanger.
Is this a problem then? Many people have secrets, many people struggles with opening up to other people. It’s not that uncommon. So is it really a problem? The answer is yes. Did you notice how the happy ending came after the protagonists revealed their secrets? Did you notice how they were healed by falling in love?
Did you notice that no professional help was involved? Did you notice how the happy ending came before the protagonist actually faced his/her trauma? Did you notice how the happy ending came without the problem/trauma being resolved? The story ends with the secret being revealed and the protagonists accept the secret. They do not actually work through the trauma, only acknowledge its existence. (Unless you count the ”healed by love” as working through the trauma.)
Thus, the story becomes driven by the secret. A secret that often involves a traumatic event in one of the main characters’ past. The story is based on the secret, a secret that keeps the main characters from being together. When the secret then is revealed, it is meant to clear all the uncertainties and explain the characters’ previous behavior, at times excusing said behavior. When the secret is out, they often have their happy ending because they can finally be together since they both know the secret. By doing this, a traumatic event becomes a plot device. It becomes a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Because it’s the fact that it happened that mattered, not the event and trauma and its effects in itself that matters. Because as soon as the secret is revealed, it is often resolved without much further ado, and only resolved by the main characters’ love for each other.
That is why I am disappointed. When I pick up the book, soon enough there is a secret involved. As I read on more and more clues are revealed. Soon I figure it out with enough clues, and realize that yes, once again, the traumatic event will not be dealt with properly. It is only used to add drama. I keep hoping it will be different, that love does not simply heal anything, especially not issues such as abuse or depression or other. I keep my hopes up. Then the secret is revealed, and I realize my hope, and somewhat excitement, was for nothing. Real issues were trivialized and swept under the rug. It was one big disappointment, and once again I was left wishing for a zoo as I stared at those damn insects.