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High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

A very interesting conversation happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But teenage social order  is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores (for an example of how this reaches well into adulthood, check out one element of the whole #YAMafia kerfuffle (before anyone flames me for the joke, I am aware that this wasn’t the only issue at play)). The fact is: it’s true. So how do we reflect it in our YA fiction in a way that’s believable?

One thing I see in most manuscripts is a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writer describing their daily reality in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

But how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on books that avoid talking about the social structure altogether and yet manage to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

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  1. Erin Kelly’s avatar

    Before I submitted my MS to agents I had several people read my MG novel and all of them commented on this very thing. I had a lunchroom scenario where the character was looking at all the different “groups” and the folks editing the book for me had one thing to say: “YAWN! Not ANOTHER clique run-down!”

    At the end of the day I realized the Clique Rundown wasn’t even really essential to what I was trying to convey and what I ultimately did was have my character interact with a few different students, just to illustrate the different types of people who went to her school. I avoided stereotyping, added some dimension to the story and ultimately weeded out an unnecessary “info dump.”

    : )

  2. Nikki’s avatar

    Mary,
    That’s a great point you speak to. Most teens know their place, but rarely talk about it – and definitely don’t go down the hall listing off attributes. I think the key here is being sparse and actually interacting with those characters. The “snotty cheerleader” may talk right over the MC, cutting off a comment completely. The “nerd” may answer for the MC, or completely correct him.

    Or, the author may choose not to have the story take place during the school year at all. Which, strangely enough, is 3 of my manuscripts!

  3. EricJ’s avatar

    Good comment that most of the “preaching” about cliques tends to come from (well-meaning) adult old-fogeys:
    Before we all start getting nostalgic for “The Breakfast Club” in the 80′s, it’s the cold water of reality to point out John Hughes was pushing forty when he wrote it, and then he thought it was “hip” to blame cliques on Those Evil Insensitive Parents.

    Fact is, high school kids make their own cliques because they’re just not that interested in the outside world: You’ve had your world regimented in schedules, homework, and authority demands since the age of five, and like a prisoner who’s been in max-security for the last fifteen years, you don’t ask about the other prisoners and you don’t tell–You just shuffle from one scheduled activity to the next, and make loyal between-break alliances where you can when the warden’s back is turned.
    At the age for teens when “the rest of the world is wrong”, you don’t treat the other nameless folk around you as people, you treat them as easily understood symbols that you can understand without making contact: The idea of getting close enough to find out that a nerd might have interesting hobbies, a cheerleader might be smart, a jock might be sensitive, etc., that’s too touchy-feely to get into before graduation, and it’ll destroy your own standing….And you might be aware of it, but not enough to describe, decry or satirize; it just IS. Because it makes sense. If you’re with your Own Kind, you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.
    (The de-cliquing doesn’t really start until freshman college, when everyone is trying to re-invent themselves from a clean slate, and tries to wear their neato social/political view on their t-shirt instead.)

    That’s a hard thing to tap into unless you’re writing from your own high school experiences, and if you fake it, it’ll show.

  4. Jen Zeman’s avatar

    Going Bovine by Libba Bray comes to mind for me.

  5. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I have a few issues with the neatly cut, perfectly boxed stereotypes a lot of YA novels seem to follow when it comes to high school cliques. I’d prefer for the rundown not to be a part of the novel, unless it’s done in a unique way, because I often find it just a bit too cookie cutter.

    It is natural for teens to form cliques, but it’s hardly ever as cut and dry as what I’m seeing in some YA. There’s a difference between a character knowing one’s place in a HS social hierarchy, and the author spoonfeeding the stereotypical: cheerleaders are bitches, jocks are stupid, my MC is a loner, ect, ect.

    Mary, you once did a vlog about creating complex characters – like instead of having an Asian character who loves math (stereotype), maybe try an Asian character who hates math and wants to be an artist (I’m probably paraphrasing horribly here). I think the same applies here. There should be more complexity to the hierarchy.

    I wish more were like the movie Sixteen Candles. The main character Sam totally knows where she is status-wise, but she’s crushing on hot senior popular jock, who is secretly crushing on her back – oh, and he’s nice and not stupid. HIS girlfriend is popular, gorgeous, and not even totally mean, and ends up falling for the nerdy freshman boy. Can we have a book version of Sixteen Candles, someone? Pleaaaase?

  6. Estee Wood’s avatar

    The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff never put the kids in cliques, but we knew where they belonged by how the other characters interacted with them. She didn’t overwhelm us with details, so it came across as natural.

  7. Tamara Paulin’s avatar

    I am thankful that the high school I went to didn’t follow the American-movie-cliche social hierarchy. We had some cheerleaders, but they were … uh … lower than the 30-year olds who are in that Glee club on tv. We had a few girls who considered themselves the popular/cute ones and wore matching outfits and walked five-abreast down the hallways, but they weren’t that cute and nobody but them cared.

    By setting my first middle-grade novel in my old high school, I think I avoided the cliches. It might also help that I’m Canadian and grew up on Degrassi, which was … oh don’t get me started on the awesomeness of original 1980s Degrassi!

  8. Beth Hull’s avatar

    I just finished reading The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, and while it does a barely-there telling about the social breakdown, the main character doesn’t seem to care about those groups. She, like the character you enjoyed at the Big Sur workshop, does her own thing. She’s aware of the different cliques, but moves between or below them. It worked for me.

  9. Rebecca C.’s avatar

    I loved BEFORE I FALL for its different take on high school hierarchy! I’m Canadian so I grew up in a different kind of high school from the ones I usually read about, and BEFORE I FALL was a lot closer to the reality I knew. Everyone going to the same parties, a couple people being picked on but mostly everyone interacted with everyone. It was definitely refreshing to see that.

  10. Jonathan Auxier’s avatar

    Another downside to the clique-rundown is that it locks a book into a specific era, limiting its future relatability. Do writers really think that in ten years teens will still be self-identifying as “emo?” For that matter, do teens even self-identify with labels like that? Of course cliques exist, but only on the CW do they give themselves nicknames.

    I think you make a very perceptive point about WHY those scenes show up in so many books — that it’s more about the author easing themselves into the world than communicating something new to a reader. Your explanation justifies the writing of such scenes while simultaneously explaining why they have no business being in a final draft (no matter how clever).

  11. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Hex, A Witch and Angel Tale by Ramona Wray is one that I read the opening chapter on Amazon and although it went into the social situation of the guy the MC had a crush on, you pretty much get that this girl isn’t that high up on the totem pole. I love the way she describes things, very quirky and relatable. And even though this ‘crush guy’ seems to be typical, she soon finds that he is all but.

  12. Franziska Green’s avatar

    DOING IT by Melvin Burgess. You immediately recognise who and where the characters are in the school social set-up without being told. It’s so real it’s almost painful to read!

  13. Rose Green’s avatar

    Sometimes I wonder about the absoluteness of a high school hierarchy. My experience and observation has been that 8th graders can be far nastier than 11th graders. But maybe that’s just me…

    I think the Dairy Queen books do a fantastic job of showing socioeconomic differences between characters without it feeling fake and set up. I don’t have the book in front of me, but a line I remember that made DJ’s situation particularly clear with reference to Brian was something like, there he goes in his shiny new boots his mother bought him at Walmart, and his new car from his daddy’s dealership (er, much, MUCH better in the original–but it was the little details that really caught the feel of the hierarchy in a small town that really grounded it for me. Having grown up in a small town like that one, it felt really real.)

  14. Robin Lemke’s avatar

    You make a good point that the social structure is innate to high schoolers. And less obvious to outsiders. A perfectly beautiful girl might be not on the top of the heap and somebody walking in blind wouldn’t get it. You almost need a “new kid” if you want to “tell” the social order – kinda like a rookie in a cop novel.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re writing YA, you’re writing *to* the high schoolers who already get all this, not to another 30-something that has to be reminded.

  15. Jean Ann Williams’s avatar

    This has all been very informative. Thanks, Mary and all.

  16. tracy’s avatar

    An 11-year-old told me: “There is the school me and the home me. Neither are really all me. One is a bit closer to the real me.” “Which one?” I asked. “The home me. I fake being tough at school so I don’t get hurt.” “How many others are faking it?” “Everyone.”

    Again, an 11-year-old said that. The high school hierarchy is complex. People are complex.

    In my WIP, the main character has all the trappings of someone popular. I show this through her family and how people respond to her at school. But she feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. The mean girl isn’t a cheerleader. The obligatory cute guy isn’t a jock or a rocker or a bad boy. He’s smart. Really smart. And he loves classic rock. I create a person, not a stereotype. (I hope anyway. :-))

  17. Maria’s avatar

    Maybe it’s because I’ve only recently graduated, but I hate how social hierarchies are shown in YA books and movies. It seems more like something older authors create because that’s how it was when they were in school, or that’s how every other book/movie/tv show portrays it. None of the people I know experienced rigid social structures. There are people with lots of friends and people with a few friends. There are people who like certain types of music and people who are into sports or drama or whatever. But most people are into a lot of things. It’s not like you’re only a jock or only in Spanish club. Most people do tons of activities, so they’re friends with all kinds of different people.

    In my HS, the quarterback was also in drama, show choir and journalism. Kids in band were also in student government. There were groups of friends, but the groups were pretty fluid.

  18. Mandy P.’s avatar

    I agree with Maria. The Breakfast Club hierarchy was never something I experienced in high school. Maybe its because my high school had 3,500 students (in my district that was a small high school), but we didn’t have the cliche cliques. Oh, there were cliques, but not in a stereotypical way. People with similar interests hung out. I was a self proclaimed nerd (Band, Latin Club, Science Olympiad, Quiz Bowl…yep nerd) and my best friend was into ska (black and white checkered back pack, a different concert every other night). My entire Calculus AB class was filled with football players. There were several football players and cheerleaders who were also in band. Pretty much none of the “standard” social order.

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